Commentary on Parashat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds [the Red Sea]. (Exodus 13:17-18)
It wasn’t enough that God led the Israelites the long way around. They had to pass through the sea in order to survive — before they could rejoice by singing the Song at the Sea. They had to experience an extra measure of deliverance before they could confront their own destiny. It was through the expression of the Song that they were able to taste their freedom for the first time.
Taking the Long Way
It is clear that God had many reasons to take the ancient Israelites the long way to the Promised Land. By definition, it is always a long road to the Promised Land. There are lots of explanations as to why this took place in the Torah. Perhaps the most persuasive is that the ancient Israelites had to purge their souls of slavery. They were free, but they had to then wrestle themselves free of the shackles that remained.
When you live as a slave for so many generations, slavery begins to be the prism through which you look at the entire world. It shapes your entire identity–everything you see or do. The long road traveled did more than just allow the slave generation to die out. It also encouraged a new generation to grow in the desert, to take root, to become the desert as some of the rabbis suggest in their commentaries on this section of the Torah.
In the desert are contained certain risks, but as the ancient Israelites will testify, the risks were worth it for they were then able to find their way to the Promised Land. We have taken many risks in this land of freedom. As those in our families will indicate, the risks had to be taken for they had no choice but to come to these shores.
The ancient Israelites took a risk by leaving Egypt, by following Moses under God’s direction, but then they were able to sing the Song at the Sea. We too are on a journey, one that will renew our definition of Israel–perhaps similar to the mixed multitude that formed our people at its beginning. But at the end of the process, we too will sing a song at the sea. Let us write the words together.