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And it was, when Pharaoh released the people. And G-d did not take them the way of the land of the Philistines because it was close, because G-d said, “Perhaps the people will feel regret when they see war and they will turn back to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17).

Egypt, of course, is south of the land of Israel. When traveling from Egypt to Israel, the quickest route is through the land of the Philistines, which is closest to it. Thus, the verse plainly means that G-d thought this path was too close. The people would see battle there and then they would turn back to Egypt.


This is very odd. If you were trying to get from one place to another – say, from Washington Heights in New York City to Teaneck, N.J. – wouldn’t you think the closeness of the George Washington Bridge, which links these two places, makes it the best way to get away from New York? Would it be better to take the subway downtown and then get in an Uber that could take you through the Lincoln Tunnel and then up the New Jersey Turnpike?

Now, you may counter: The people of Israel will see battle if they take the short path, and this could cause them to regret leaving Egypt and make them want to turn around. This certainly seems to be Rashi’s understanding, and it’s a good one. Yet, we cannot let Rashi off the hook so easily. After all, the people will indeed soon see battle when they are attacked in the desert by Amalek. Did that battle not make the people want to turn back to Egypt? Why is it better to face the Amalekites than the Philistines? In our example, this is a bit like saying, “I don’t want to sit in traffic on the GWB, so I think I’ll go down to the Lincoln Tunnel and sit in traffic there.”

In truth, Rashi has a solution for us. He writes: “And it was, when Pharaoh released the people. And G-d did not take them the way of the land of the Philistines’ – Because it was near, and it would therefore be easy to return by the same route to Egypt. ‘When they see war’ – for instance the war mentioned in Numbers 14:45: ‘Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites came down, etc.’ If they had proceeded by the direct route, they would have then turned back. This is evident, for what would have been the case? If, when He led them about by a circuitous way, they said (Numbers 14:4), ‘Let us appoint another chief and go back to Egypt,’ had He led them by a direct route how much the more certainly would they have spoken so.”

Rashi explains the situation as follows: Indeed, G-d wishes to get the people far away from Egypt. He knows that they are accustomed to slavery, afraid of freedom and death. Thus, He concocts a plan to make going back very difficult for them, so that they will not want to go back, or they will not act on it. It will just be too hard to turn around and travel the circuitous route back to Egypt. It would be like taking an addict away from the activity that controls him. We would wish to make it very hard, unlikely, and undesirable for him to turn back towards his addiction. Thus, we might take him far out of the way in order to disincentivize his return to his old ways and failures.

In fact, the Torah is filled with these sorts of fail-safes – plans to keep us from failure when failure is on the table, ways to make us less likely to fall prey to certain errors or sins. For instance, G-d prohibits us not only from eating milk and meat together but even from cooking them together, apparently in order to make it less likely that we will eat them. Likewise, there is a divine prohibition not only on eating chametz but also regarding even owning it, so that we should not trip up. We may not eat even a piece of forbidden food, so that we do not come to eat to satiate ourselves from it, and a nazir may not consume even vinegar, so that he does not come to consume wine. So, too, with yichud, the prohibition for a man and woman who cannot have relations to seclude themselves together. This is a law which prevents worse sins from occurring.

What we have here, then, is a basic example of this principle. Apparently, G-d does not merely command us to do certain things and avoid others. Rather, He puts us on a path to success that partially rests on making failure harder. Such redundancies are common in many areas of life and industries. We are advised to back up pictures and work materials on the cloud so that we do not lose everything, and NASA comes up with all sorts of fail-safes so that if failure occurs, it will not end in disaster. The Torah, of course, does not come so much to advise us on how to avoid losing all of our iPhone photos as it does to teach us how to not lose ourselves. What are the things we need to do in order to avoid losing our temper, or betraying the trust of people we love, or violating the laws of G-d Himself?

Indeed, the people of Israel would see battle in the desert and, indeed, they would wish – many times – to go back to Egypt. But this would prove very difficult for them. Hashem gave them the luxury of making this failure harder. Taking the quick route via the land of the Philistines would not have done the trick.

As a matter of fact, the Torah as a whole comes to treat this problem, this fact of life, that is failure on a moral level. The Rambam writes in the beginning of his Laws of Idolatry:

“[Yaakov] taught others and turned [the hearts] of all those who gathered around him [to G-d]. He also taught all of his children. He selected Levi and appointed him as the leader. He established him [as the head of] the academy to teach them the way of G-d and observe the mitzvot of Avraham. [Yaakov] commanded his sons that the leadership should not depart from the descendants of Levi, so that the teachings would not be forgotten. This concept proceeded and gathered strength among the descendants of Yaakov and those who collected around them, until there became a nation within the world which knew G-d.

“When the Jews extended their stay in Egypt, however, they learned from the [Egyptians’] deeds and began worshiping the stars as they did, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, who clung to the mitzvot of the patriarchs – the tribe of Levi never served false gods.

“Within a short time, the fundamental principle that Avraham had planted would have been uprooted, and the descendants of Yaakov would have returned to the errors of the world and their crookedness. Because of G-d’s love for us, and to uphold the oath He made to Avraham, our patriarch, He brought forth Moshe, our teacher, the master of all prophets, and sent him [to redeem the Jews]. After Moshe, our teacher, prophesied, and G-d chose Israel as His inheritance, He crowned them with mitzvot and informed them of the path to serve Him, [teaching them] the judgment prescribed for idol worship and all those who stray after it.”

In other words, in the Rambam’s opinion, Yaakov did not need so many commandments in order to retain Hashem’s values. His children, however, began to assimilate into Egyptian culture within two generations, and G-d saw that if not for a more expansive network of laws and practices, the covenant with Avraham would disappear in short order.

This is no less true now than it was then. Indeed, we see, unfortunately, that a lack of observance of our laws does not result in many individuals who strongly appreciate their relationship with G-d, with the Jewish people, and with the land of Israel. Even people who were raised with the values of Zionism now turn their backs on our people, sometimes embarrassed of us, sometimes feeling even hatred toward us.

If we follow the Torah’s model, we must each consider our long-term plans for personal, interpersonal, and spiritual success. What do we have in mind for ourselves and our families? And then we need to start making plans that allow us to fail without failing catastrophically. Everyone fails; every relationship needs repair time and again. So every eye must be towards teshuva, a repentance and reconciliation that will bring us closer to G-d, our loved ones, and the best version of ourselves. Hashem thought it worthwhile to build redundancies into cultural and spiritual questions. The Torah shares this with us, Rashi seems to suggest, so that we may learn to do this ourselves.


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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.