Friday, January 14, 2011

Parshat B'shalach - פרשת בשלח

"וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא: כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה. וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם-סוּף; וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם - And it came to pass when Pharaoh had let the people go, that Hashem led them not by the way of the land of the P'lishtim, because it was near; for Hashem said: 'Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they will return to Egypt.' So Hashem turned the people about by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt."
(שמות יג:יז-יח)

The verses above, as is fairly clear, are part of those detailing Am Yisrael's exit from Egypt. The famed exodus, we learn here, did not take place in the most straightforward manner possible; namely that the Am Yisrael did not leave Egypt from the Northern tip of its Eastern border, head North-East through the desert along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (through modern-day Gaza,) and finally reach the closest part of the Holy Land; South-West Israel.

Instead, Hashem guided the Israelites to their destination in a rather roundabout fashion. As it says above, "וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם-סוּף - So Hashem turned the people about by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea." Instead of heading North-East, the Jews are instructed to go first East, cross a sea, and then turn North so that they may finally enter the land of Israel from the West by crossing the Eastern bank of the Jordan river. We may picture their route as roughly two sides of a triangle, with the "hypotenuse," being the shorter, more direct and seemingly more sensible route. Why did their path meander so? Why couldn't the Jews simply take the shortcut?

Rashi and the Ramban, though, give this question fairly short shrift. They point out that there was a need for Hashem to take Am Yisrael on this indirect and drawn-our route precisely because it was indirect and drawn-out. If the Jews had traveled along the Mediterranean coast, they would have passed through a place we call "Philistia" in modern English, the home of the fearsome and belicose P'lishtim. (Otherwise known as the Phillistines.) Hashem knew that the people would lose heart and turn back to Egypt were that to happen, and so He had them enter the Holy Land another way. By forcing them along a tortuously indirect route that took them far from Egypt, He made it hard for them to even consider turning back. As we see, Amalek did attack the Jews, and Hashem' plan was vindicated as nobody pleaded to turn back.

So far, so biblical. There is an axiom in Jewish thought, though, that each and every word mentioned in the Torah is mentioned because it is relevant to every generation. So what may we learn from this? If I may, I'd like to leave the commentaries here, and make my own observations. (And all faults found herein are my own.)

The question that I'd like to pose is why Israel deserved to be taken back to Eretz Yisrael? They exited Egypt on the lowest level possible and committed numerous despicable sins on the way. Had Hashem at any time decided to call it off, His decision would have been entirely justified. Indeed, after the Cheit Ha-Egel, Hashem initially informs Moshe Rabbeinu that He plans to destroy Am Yisrael. However, He signals to Moshe Rabbeinu that this decision is negotiable. Hashem tells Moshe, “וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל - And now leave Me and I will destroy them and make you a great nation” (Sh'mot 32:10).

Rashi, citing Chazal, notes that although Hashem speaks seemingly unequivocally, He implies that He will not destroy Am Yisrael if Moshe does not “leave Him alone.” To use an Orwellism, why the doublespeak?

The answer could well be that Hashem wants to communicate a complex message*. On the one hand, Hashem wishes to say that this sin is one for which Bnei Yisrael really do deserve to be destroyed. On the other hand, there is room for them to recover from this ugly incident. In the end, Moshe's pleas are heard, Am Yisrael are not destroyed, they continue on the journey to Israel and ultimately end up in the Holy Land with the Beit Hamikdash.

What may we learn from this episode? Although the answer that Hashem guided the Jews to Israel via an indirect route so as to avoid being attacked is a perfectly viable and correct answer, I'd like to suggest another aspect. It was to take us through a rollercoaster ride in which we would be completely exposed. In the desert we fell apart time and again, only for Hashem to forgive us each time and not destroy us. We reached Eretz Israel not because we deserved to on our own merits, but with the help of Hashem, we were permitted to reach the promised land.

I can't remember where I heard it, but I once heard an intriguing question posed; when the redemption finally comes, will the generation that is alive at the time will be considered as more virtuous than previous generations? Will the Moshiach's arrival really be because of their merits? To make an even more pertinent point; if we are taught to expect the arrival of the redemption at any given moment, then are we to say that if the Moshiach arrives in our time, or generation will have deserved it more than all previous ones? Could we really say that all the incredibly wise Rabbis of previous generations "didn't deserve" such a merit while we did?

The answer is a resounding no. When the Moshiach does come, we learn, his arrival will be due in part to all the merits of previous generations. We must regard the coming of this moment as the result of an accumulation of the merits of the generations, not as the result of the events of only one.

While the Bnei Yisrael in the desert scarcely seemed to deserve passage into the Holy Land, merit this incredible prize they did, because their attempts at becoming close with Hashem, coupled with the merits of previous generations was enough. We may look back at the long, winding route taken with a degree of recognition - we all have our moments of doubt, but if we cast a look at Am Yisrael's travails in Egypt, we may remind ourselves of our final destination: Eretz Yisrael and the ultimate redemption. As this blog is called — Destination: Israel!

*I found this online, in a D'var Torah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter, here.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

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