The Road not Taken


This week’s parashah begins with a description of God’s travel itinerary with regard to the journey of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

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, although that was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea. (Shemot 13:17-18)

It seems that God leads them through a crooked route (akuma) lest they have subversive thoughts about going back to Egypt. It is clear in this week’s section that, at this point, the Hebrews were still ambivalent about the walk to freedom. They were not utterly convinced that this journey was worth it. In fact they were quite ready to believe that they had been seduced from one place of relative security to one of sure death. The memory of the hardships in Egypt was beginning to fade and their past seemed brighter than it had actually been while the uncertain future terrified them.

And if God could not prevent his people from having such thoughts, he could make it harder for them to act on them. Thus their journey reads like a graph curve (the modern meaning of the word akuma) which records their wanderings but also their ups and downs

In fact, to quote Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, God even provided them with ‘an academic space’, in which, precisely, to do their thinking. Paradoxically this crooked route in the wilderness gave them the freedom to think and ask their own questions. What looked like a strenuous itinerary proved in fact to be the more desirable option.

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that ‘there is no such thing as a sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Trees take time to grow. The seasons shade imperceptibly into one another. Day fades into night. Processes take time, and there are no shortcuts.’

When frustration appears and when we feel that things are too slow, it is perhaps worth remembering that questions and doubts are the desirable prerequisite steps before a change is possible.