We lament that our modern world is devoid of those bigger-than-life “parting of the sea” moments, but the thing is . . . parenting is full of them. This too is Torah.
I ran away from camp. Yes, I was that kid.
I went to summer camp every summer from the age of 8 until the age of 15, when it was no longer a yearly priority for me. Every summer I’d pack my bags and head to sleep-away camp. Jewish residential camp provided me the opportunity to be immersed in Judaism, to live a life filled with song, dance, art, swimming, gaga, and learning.
On paper, the idea was magical. In reality, the intense experience of living in close quarters with twelve girls in one cabin for eight weeks was often just a little too much for this introvert. Like clockwork, I’d find myself overwhelmed by the intensity of experiences and emotions, and I’d get the urge to run . . . away. I became known as the runaway camper because once every summer, when something overwhelmed me, I would bolt from my cabin down the dirt road, out the camp gate (before we had locked gates). I’d take off down the road, running as fast as I could until I could just barely see the camp sign. I was a counselor’s dream, as you can imagine. And every year my counselor would tell me, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” In other words, the thing that upsets you or bothers you won’t change just by running away from it.
There’s some comfort in knowing the Israelites tried to run away from their problems too. This week we read parshat Beshalach. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them and moments of the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards. Exodus, like a 40-year sleep-away camp, is a rollercoaster of emotions.
In Egypt, the life of the Israelites was harsh and exhausting. There was no independence and no possibility of change. When God and Moshe offer them the opportunity to leave this environment, they can’t get out fast enough. The Israelites were running from their “problem” of slavery. Once in the wilderness, they realize whether you’re free or enslaved, life is not without its problems. As the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Hassidic rabbi taught, “Often in life, we think we can escape our problems by running away, only to find our problems running after us.”
Did my escaping from camp solve anything or simply create new problems? Likely a little of both. Allow me to paint my fleeing from camp in a new light. Yes, it was a misguided solution that probably scared and annoyed my counselors, but it was also my way of removing some of the pent-up frustration so I could clear my head and return with fresh eyes and calmer emotions.
Even once the Israelites are out of reach of the Egyptians, perhaps in their minds they’re still fleeing. Perhaps the real “running away” is their use of a new, defiant voice that, for the first time, is able to make itself heard loud and clear.
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.