Why did it take 40 years to reach the Promised Land?

Exodus 13:17-17:16
Judges 4:4-5:31

The laws of geometry teach us that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If only the Jewish people hadn’t skipped that class while enslaved in Egypt, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken them 40 years to arrive at the Promised Land. It seems, however, that God had other plans for our ancestors.

I have always been fascinated by how people go from point A to point B. Frequently, you have the same familiar dilemma, yet if you ask a group of people to find the answer, each person will come up his or her own unique way of solving the problem. It’s very much like a modern-day GPS. To get to San Francisco, you could take 101 or 280, or come across the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge.

While the initial directions for our journey may seem straightforward, we are often rerouted, or perhaps more accurately put, “recalculated,” to adapt to external factors: traffic (not an uncommon occurrence in the Bay Area), bad weather, the need to stop for gas and the like. Seldom are we actually able to travel in a direct, nonstop path.

As the Israelites scurry to leave Egypt, we learn in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion that “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:17-18).

Why does God feel the need to have the Israelites wander aimlessly rather than proceed directly to their destination? You would think that in fleeing from the enemy, in hot pursuit of freedom, they would want to reach safety as soon as possible.

Contemporary Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg notes, “The opposition of the road not taken (the ‘straight’ road) to the route chosen (the ‘crooked’ route) carries its own paradoxical resonance. Obviously, the straight road is preferable to the ‘crooked’; strategically, physically, and ethically; indeed, the metaphorical use of these expressions — the straight and the crooked paths — is a commonplace in ethical writings. Yet, here, the Torah makes a point of God’s not taking the obvious route … Through this opening speech at the moment of redemption, we understand that the Israelites, even at this moment, are ambivalent about the movement to freedom” (“The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus”).

Zornberg points to very real challenges with journeying: anxiety, uncertainty. The Exodus from Egypt is laden with a certain fear of the unknown, and it seems that God was worried that once the Israelites saw the challenges that would arise while wandering in the desert, they would prefer to return to Egypt, where, although enslaved, they at least felt a certain degree of consistency in their lives, a familiar routine.

This is a struggle that many people face at least one time or another in life: a reluctance to try something new, to veer off into uncharted territory, to stray from our comfort zones, all at the risk of traveling a path that is less familiar or comfortable.

As we learn in the Babylonian Talmud, “There is a long way which is short and a short way which is long” (Tractate Eruvin 53b). The journey of the Jewish people through the wilderness from slavery to freedom is undoubtedly filled with trials and tribulations, yet ultimately, through our circuitous route, we become a unified nation, a People of Israel — Am Yisrael, stronger from our experiences, more mature through our overcoming adversity and eventually, more assured that leaving Egypt was in fact the right thing to do.

In his poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I think that there is something to be said for taking the easy route because it makes us feel safe. At the same time, I also think that there is something profound in taking road less traveled, even if longer, windier and more dangerous along the way. Sometimes, the harder we work for something, the more we appreciate what we’ve accomplished once we arrive at our destination.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].