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Friday - Shabbat January 29 - 30

Torah Reading:  Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16)
Candle Lighting Time 4:51 PM
Shabbat ends 5:54 PM

Close Call

This week’s parsha begins with the words: “When Pharaoh sent the people away, G‑d did not lead them through the land of the Philistines because it was close. This is because G‑d said, ‘When the people see a war they may regret (leaving) and return to Egypt.’ G‑d led the people on a roundabout route through the desert to the Red Sea.”

Commentators ask why G‑d was “compelled” to take them through the circuitous route. Even if the Jewish nation would see war and want to return to Egypt, couldn’t G‑d have prevented them from returning? G‑d could have also performed great miracles so that they would easily have defeated anyone that would dare wage war against them. Why then would G‑d delay their entry into the Promised Land simply because they might be intimidated by the prospects of war and consider returning to Egypt?

A second question: When G‑d did change course and took them in this roundabout route towards the Red Sea, and they were pursued by the Egyptians, some did indeed protest and wished to return to Egypt. If G‑d was concerned that the prospects of war would induce them to want to return, what did He gain by taking them the other way?

The key to answering these questions can be found in the intriguing commentary of the Midrash of the word “close” (in the phrase, “ the land of the Philistines was close”) that appears in the text of the Torah:

The Midrash defines the words “because it was close” in a rather novel way. Instead of interpreting the term “close” to refer to the direct route through the land of the Philistines, it applies to the Jewish people. It is because they—the Jewish people—are close to G‑d. G‑d did not want to take them through this route because He was too close to them. It was His concern for the people that made Him make the Jews follow this roundabout route.

What prompted our Sages to reinterpret the simple meaning of the word close?

One answer given is that G‑d was certainly not concerned that the Jews would actually return to Egypt. Even if that were the case, G‑d could have easily thwarted their retreat just as He did when they came to the sea. G‑d’s concern rather was not that they would actually succeed in returning to Egypt. He was concerned that they would have even entertained the thought of returning. Even to harbor this thought on their part would have been “painful” for G‑d, as it were. To see those who were so close to Him even harbor the desire to go back to Egypt would have proven painful. Therefore G‑d said, “I will not take them through the short route lest they harbor a desire to return to Egypt.”

However, the question still remains. Why was G‑d not troubled when they harbored that very thought of returning when they stood at the Red Sea pursued by the Egyptians?

The difference is that if they had gone straight from Egypt to the Land of Israel this desire to return would have surfaced from time to time. There would have never been a sense of “closure” to their experience in Egypt. The option to return would have lurked somewhere in the recesses of their hearts and minds. They would have been tormented by anxiety associated with the fear of war in their new land and returning to Egypt would have been a viable option under those circumstances. At the very least, subconsciously, their inability to emotionally adjust to their new life in the Land of Israel, would have kept them forever attached to Egypt.

On the other hand, when they reached the sea, even though some were considering the prospects of returning, it was a onetime aberration. At the sea, G‑d told Moses to tell the Jews: “For as you have seen Egypt today you will never see them again.” After the splitting of the sea, it was clear to all that any emotional connection to Egypt was absolutely severed.

Seen through this prism, their desire to return to Egypt was not a totally negative experience. By bringing to the fore their anxiety and fear of the Egyptians and their desire to capitulate, the Jews now had the chance to once and for all get Egypt out of their systems. By seeing the end of Egypt it brought closure to that experience, without which the memory and threat of Egypt would have lingered on. These thoughts of returning would never allow us to be comfortable in our new life in the Promised Land. Ultimately, it would have interfered with our lives as Jews.

On a deeper level one could suggest that because G‑d considered us “close” to Him—His children—He could not countenance even the possibility that we should even harbor the mere thought of returning to Egypt even if it wouldn’t affect our Judaism. The very thought of returning to exile would have been, in and of itself, a blotch on our Jewishness.

We can better understand this notion by way of analogy.

Normally, we are concerned with the actions of others towards us. We might even be offended by the words some use against us. But we really cannot get bent out of shape if someone harbored a negative thought about us.

Similarly, the Talmud teaches that when G‑d judges us for our behavior He will only hold us accountable for our evil actions and speech. But—with the exception of idolatry—we are not held accountable for the undesirable thoughts that enter our minds.

However, that is true with regard to accountability and the way we are judged. But when we deal with someone who is close to us, the mere fact that he or she entertained a negative thought about us can be troubling. How can someone so close to me think that way about me?

The same is true of our relationship with G‑d. If we were not so close to G‑d, the mere thought of returning to Egypt—not accompanied with concomitant action—would not disturb Him. But when we are dealing with the nation that is so close to Him—the nation whom G‑d referred to as “My first born son, Israel”, and the nation about whom the Midrash writes “they arose in My thoughts”—He could not countenance even a mere fleeting thought on our part to choose to be back as slaves to Pharaoh instead of being with G‑d in His home, in the Holy Land.

For close to 2,000 years, the Jewish people collectively have not forgotten that their real home is in G‑d’s home; in the Land of Israel, in Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. We have never—as a people—even harbored a fleeting thought that we belong anywhere other than in His home. For close to two thousand years, our persistent prayers reflect our passion and obsession with returning home to the Promised Land, led by Moshiach who will usher in the true and complete Redemption.  

Moshiach Matters  

One of the characteristics of Moshiach is that he will be a “poor person, riding on a donkey” (Zachariah 9:9). This implies that even those that laughed at Moshiach and didn’t believe in his coming will be atoned for by Moshiach and (instead of being punishedd....) they will be redeemed together with everyone else... (Pesikta on the above verse)

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