In the months preparing for the birth of our first child, I found myself drawn into several parenting books and blogs that offered suggestions for surviving the inevitable lack of sleep I’d soon be experiencing. I asked my own mom how she comforted me when I was a baby in the hope that I would develop a foolproof strategy for getting the baby (and us) to sleep. One of the most often suggested strategies was the road trip, even if it just meant circling the block a few times. There is something about the way the movement of the car rocks a baby to sleep that feels like magic. Of course, sometimes this means taking the long road home on purpose just to gain some peace and quiet.
The goal of a little peace and quiet is no different in this week’s Torah portion, parshat Beshalach, and interestingly the solution is similar as well. This week we find the children of Israelon their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians run after them, but God stepsin and saves them. Like life with a toddler, the Israelites’ journey is a mix between awe and wonder at the new, free world around them and temper tantrums directed at God for any particular hardship. Witnessing this behavior, God realizes that a short “point A to point B” ride in the car (or trek in the desert) isn’t going to make them appreciate the Promised Land more, so the Israelites are sent the long way to get to Israel.
Ibn Ezra picks up on the new, longer route and suggests that the reasoning behind this is that God did not want the Israelites to arrive at the Promised Land too soon. Having been slaves all their lives, they would not have been prepared to conquer Canaan until they had a lengthy experience of freedom. Simply put, the Israelites needed time to stretch their legs; they’d been enslaved far too long to understand real freedom. Entering Israel too quickly would leave them without a true sense of the gift they had received.
On the other hand, Rambam takes this notion of a long arduous journey to mean that God was letting the Israelites cry it out. The long trek was God’s way of making them accustomed to the hardships they would encounter as they entered the land.
An earlier commentary found in the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Eiruvin suggests a combination of these two ideas. “There is a long way which is short and a short way which is long.” The Talmud is saying that both philosophies, the soothing car ride and the long, fussy road, can both be beneficial.
Most importantly, learning that the Israelites took the long route teaches us that easy isn’t always better. Had God led them hastily into the land, they would have become too complacent about their freedom and would immediately expect the next big, grand gesture from God. In the end, the Israelites learned to better appreciate what God had done for them and how to recover from mistakes made along the way. Ultimately, it isn’t about whether the road is long or short; it’s about making sure the journey means as much as the destination.