Rabbi Jackie Tabick
We all know that Moses took the wrong route out of Egypt. There is a wonderful cartoon I have seen with Moses in the front of the group, Israelites the horizon got landmarks while in the back, Zipporah has gone up to a local man who provided her with a map. And the caption reads, “After 40 years in the wilderness, Zipporah decided to take matters into her own hands”.
The journey should, of course, have only taken around 10 to 12 days. There was an established trade route. A king’s highway, no less, to follow. So how come it took 40 years? Well at the beginning of the Sedra, we are told, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, instead God took them by the most circuitous route possible i.e., instead of the direct north-easterly route, they went south-east, had to cross over the Red Sea and eventually, they went up into what is now the kingdom of Jordan. From there, they finally crossed into the Promised Land 40 years later. Why?
The Torah explains it was because God was frightened that if they had to engage immediately in war with the Philistines, the Israelites, faced with skirmishes and casualties, would have lost heart, capitulated and fled back to Egypt. After all, they had been slaves for a long time. They were not used to fighting battles against authority or stronger peoples. They needed time to adjust. It has been said that it took only one day for the Israelites to get out of Egypt, but that it took forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We now know also that there was an additional problem. There were Egyptian forts along the sea route to Canaan, so the Israelites would have encountered them even before reaching the land.
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania who asked a young man sitting at a crossroad, “Which is the way to the town?” The young man pointed to one of the paths and said, “This way is short but long. The other way is long but short.” Yehoshua ben Hanania set out on the first path, quickly arrived at the town, but found his way blocked by gardens and orchards. He then returned to the young man and said, “Didn’t you tell me that this path was short?” “I did,” said the young man, “but I also warned you that it was long.” (Eruvin 53b)
Now all of us who have to drive around in London traffic understand those words. There is a wonderful story of a child being driven by their father to a party. They were late and the father tried to reassure his daughter telling her not to worry, he’d take the short cut. ‘Oh no’, said the child, ‘now we’ll be even later’.
For short cuts can take forever and may achieve little. Anything that is worthwhile has to be given due time and attention.
So it is with Judaism. We can try the short cuts. We can try spending the least amount of time or effort while trying to get the maximum return. Take Shabbat for example. The rabbis teach that you need to start preparing for next Shabbat even while the current one is still happening. Indeed in traditional synagogues, part of the next week’s sedra would be read during Shabbat minchah the previous Shabbat afternoon. But of course it’s not only true of Judaism, generally in life, short cuts don’t work. Quick routes often produce results that are unexciting, uninspiring, and of short term benefit. Our ancestors needed 40 years to get them to the right place to enter the Promised land. We too should remember to give time and effort to preparing for important moments that are in our lives….though perhaps, 40 years was a trifle too long. Maybe we should ask for help from those that know, or seek maps for the best routes, earlier in our journeys. Then maybe we will succeed more easily and quickly at the many tasks that face us in our lives.
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