I love telling the parsha stories to students! They listen with rapt attention and will often ask incredibly profound questions. Recently, as I have told the stories about the 10 plagues and B’nai Yisrael’s Exodus from Mitzrayim (Egypt), the students have asked a lot of questions of why God would have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. They also asked why there were 10 plagues. Why not just one big one? Why any plagues? Couldn’t God have just zapped Pharaoh and the Israelites could have left? Or could God have lifted up B’nai Yisrael and dropped them in the Promised Land? These all feel like legitimate questions when we consider the ways that the Torah describes God’s powers. And I can’t wait until they hear about this week’s Parsha and the big question. Why did God insist that B’nai Yisrael take the long way?
In the opening pasuk (verse) of Parshat B’Shalach reads, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt,” (Exodus 13:17). Not only is this route longer, we learn in the following chapter that this path includes an impassable Sea (wink wink). Again, like in the other Exodus moments, God opts for the long, deliberate route instead of the shorter, simpler version that my students were clamoring for. But in this case, God actually gives an explicit reason – lest the people may have a change of heart…and return to Egypt. Rashi explains that God did not want it to be easy to return back to Egypt, because the farther away and more treacherous the journey, the less likely they would be to reverse course.
This verse illuminates a possible explanation for why God didn’t just transport B’nai Yisrael directly to Cana’an. As a reminder, all of B’nai Yisrael had been born into slavery. Their parents had all been born slaves. Their grandparents, and great-grandparents had all been born and died as slaves. The idea of the imminent God of their ancestors was a distant myth. So in many ways the Plagues did not just serve as a punishment to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but as signs to B’nai Yisrael that God had returned to them in a big way.
God may have a lot of power in the stories of the Torah, but God does not have the power to change the minds of an entire people. God does not have the ability to coerce belief, so instead God works within nature to exhibit power and persuade B’nai Yisrael to follow Moshe out of Egypt. The remainder of the Torah is an exercise in God’s attempted persuasion. Though God frees B’nai Yisrael from Mitzrayim in last week’s parsha, this opening pasuk from B’Shalach is a reminder that God realizes that the work of persuading B’nai Yisrael is just beginning. Throughout their entire journey through the Wilderness, segments of B’nai Yisrael become fed up and begin to long for the days when they were in Egypt. We learn from this week’s parsha that God anticipated this lack of conviction, and saw this route as a strategy to dissuade a return to Egypt.
The Torah provides a master class in long-term storytelling. My students love the twists and turns and the cliff-hangers – my favorite moment of every session is when the students groan after I say, “and that is how this parsha ends.” But even more relevant is the ways that God has a long-term goal for B’nai Yisrael. The centuries of slavery cannot be undone with a short spurt of wonders and miracles. Emerging from slavery only took 10 plagues but emerging from a slave mentality would require much more than that. The opening verse in this week’s parsha, the first verse after Egypt, is the first step on that long journey toward true redemption.
Rabbi Ravid Tilles, Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Schechter Parent