April 20, 2024
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The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

The classic documentary The Long Way Home which chronicles the Jewish experience in Europe from the liberation of the camps in 1945 until the founding of the State of Israel three years later begins by quoting the first verses in Parshat Beshalach:

(יז) וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹקים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹקים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃ (יח) וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹקים אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

(17) And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said: ‘Lest the people regret when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ (18) But God led 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.

After the Holocaust, the Jews did not have an easy road to the State of Israel. Instead they continued to suffer for years as refugees. Lasting redemption usually does not take a linear path. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a circuitous route.

This is not because God wants to make our lives difficult, rather it is because he loves us.

The Daat Zekenim on Exodus 13:17:1 elaborates on this in answering a difficulty in the text. He questions why the Torah says that God did not lead the Children of Israel along the path of the Philistines כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא because it was close. Is it not obvious that the way along the land of the Philistines was the shortest route? The Daat Zekenim explains that the word קָר֖וֹב, close, is not a description of the road. Rather, it is a description of the people of Israel.

כי קרוב. כלומר העם קרוב של הקב”ה שנאמר לבני ישראל עם קרובו. ולכך לא הנהיגם כמנהגו של עולם.

כי קרוב, “because the people were close to the Lord,” as stated in Psalms148.14: לבני ישראל, עם קרובו הללוק-ה, “for Israel, the people close to Him.” This is the reason why He did not lead them as is the custom of the world…

God did not lead us the way of the land of the Philistines because we are God’s beloved nation. Because he loves us, he knew that we needed to travel a circuitous path through the desert in order to experience 40 years of growth and closeness to God. This would transform us from slaves into a strong and God fearing nation ready to enter the land of Israel.

Often the shortest distance to life’s goals is not a straight line, it is a meandering path. The points of departures are not detours towards reaching our goals but necessary life experiences to achieve these goals.

These past few months since 10/7 have illustrated this. Many, many times a day we are checking our feeds hoping for good news about the hostages and our brothers and sisters fighting for the Jewish people. And too often the news has not been good. And many of us have felt ourselves exclaiming מאין יבוא עזרי. From where will our help come? But we must remember that we were chosen to take the circular path. Not because Hashem has abandoned us but because He loves us.

I recently listened to Rabbi YY Jacobson on the Halacha Headlines podcast discussing how trauma can be transformed to an opportunity for growth. He described how throughout our history, terrible Jewish tragedies have been followed by great periods of growth. Shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, our oral tradition flourished with the composition of the Mishnah and the later redaction of the Talmud. This was done as an emergency measure out of a fear that the Torah would be forgotten. As our Sages taught עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך, because of a time to act for Hashem, the edict, against writing down the Oral Law, can be “broken”. This brave act led to more Torah learning than ever before. Later in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Jewish communities in Ashkenaz were decimated by the Crusades, France and Germany experienced a flourishing of Torah through the writings of Rashi and the Tosofot. And after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many traveled to Tzefad to revitalize the learning of our mystical traditions through the teachings of the Arizal and to strengthen our Jewish practice through the composition of the Shulchan Aruch, the basic Jewish text uniting worldwide Jewry from the east to the west. And in the generation after the horrible destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, there are more Jews learning Torah in the US and the State of Israel than ever before.

We cannot fathom why Hashem brings horrible events to our people. But we know עם קרובו, we are his beloved, chosen people, who he holds close. Sometimes, because we are close, he sends us down a difficult and meandering path to experience growth through trauma.

We have seen this growth in our people in these past months. There is a Jewish unity and bravery to confront the forces of evil and antisemitism in Israel and throughout the world that I have never seen before in my lifetime. We all hope and pray that we can continue to be united as one Jewish people so these terrible events can lead to a greater future for Am Yisrael.


Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the Director of Educational Technology at Yeshivat Frisch. He can be reached at [email protected].

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