April 14, 2024
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The Long and Winding Road

Mention “The Long and Winding Road” to most American Jews of my generation, and in all likelihood they will associate it with a song written and recorded by Paul McCartney; mention “The Long and Winding Road” to those familiar with lesser well-known midrashim associated with the festival of Shavuot, and in all likelihood they should be able to recall how three stezhkehs (a Ukrainian word taken into Yiddish for pathways) presented themselves before Moshe Rabbeinu. Each stezhkeh vied with the other two stezhkehs why it should be the stezhkeh of choice for Moshe ascending the mountain to receive the Tablets and to bring those Tablets safely back down the mountain to the Children of Israel. One stezhkeh boasted that it was the widest stezhkeh of all, thereby offering the safest of journeys. The second stezhkeh proclaimed with more than a modicum of arrogance that it was the smoothest of all stezhkehs, thereby offering the greatest comfort. The third stezhkeh gloated over the fact that it was the safest of all stezhkehs, thereby offering incomparable security.

In true midrashic fashion, Moshe Rabbeinu rejected the widest, the smoothest and the safest stezhkehs. Instead, Moshe ultimately chose a fourth stezhkeh that had remained silent while the other three stezhkehs competed for Moshe Rabbeinu’s attention. That fourth stezhkeh had the least to offer. For one thing, that stezhkeh was eng, or narrow. Engeh stezhkes going up or down mountains, especially a mountain such as Mt. Sinai, are precarious. Engeh shtezhkes provide little or no margin of error. In addition to being eng, the stezhkeh that Moshe ultimately chose was also shlengeldik, or zigzaggy. Derived from the word shlahng, or serpent, shlengeldik suggests serpentine. Just as eng increases the chances of any mishap, so too does shlengeldik. Why would Moshe Rabbeinu seek to further complicate the task he neither wanted nor asked for by choosing a serpentine path on Mt. Sinai? Perhaps most hazardous of all was that the stezhkeh was shtaynerdik, or rocky. If four-legged bovines could lose their footing on a road that was not shtaynerdik, while transporting a cart on which sat the holy Ark (II Samuel 6:6) resulting in a disaster, then surely Moshe, a human standing on two legs, with much on his mind and little in his stomach, after having fasted for 40 days and nights, was placing the two Tablets as well as himself in jeopardy as he attempted to navigate the rock-strewn, twisting and narrow pathway leading down the mountain.

Logic would dictate that carrying the Divine gift of precious and holy Tablets down to the Children of Israel, Moshe Rabbeinu would have opted for pathways assuring him of a wide margin of error, clear direction and surefootedness. Moshe Rabbeinu did nothing of the sort. Moshe Rabbeinu understood that in addition to its many benefits, blessings and rewards, the Torah was also replete with challenges, difficulties and struggles. Only by taking the long and winding road, which for Moshe Rabbeinu meant embarking on a narrow, windy, stone-strewn stezhkeh, could one rightfully look forward to the Torah’s ultimate reward of boulevards of bliss and pathways of peace. Perhaps this too is one of the many messages of the Festival of Shavuot.


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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