This week’s parsha opens with a very puzzling statement: God does not use the quickest route to bring the Israelites to their land, lest it lead to a desire to return to Egypt. Commentators argue whether this is because they will encounter too difficult a war on its trajectory or because it is a road too easy to use in retracing their step, or both. Regardless, there is a mega-question that should also be asked: If avoiding this possibility is so important, why does God bring them to so many other challenges that seem to bring up this very possibility?
Indeed, in this very parsha, three of the four times the Jews meet challenges, mention of how it was better in Egypt is not slow in coming. While one could say that this simply underscores the Divine wisdom, why would God block one avenue towards the problem only to open others? For example, why did he take them on a trek where they couldn’t find water for three days? Even if this was the only route available, God could have provided a miraculous source of water to begin with. This would have eliminated the temptation to think about this problem not existing in Egypt.
In truth, however, any challenge will bring a comparison with their former lives. It is only natural – if a person has lived somewhere all of their lives, it is rare that thoughts of the previous location not come up. True, Egypt was not a happy locale for the Jews. Rationally speaking, there was no reason to look back with nostalgia. But our minds don’t always work that way. In any event, the changes to the miraculous desert existence, soon to be guided by the new laws of the Torah, would necessarily require a great deal of adjustment.
Hence it may be too much to expect the Jews to have never looked back. But this is not the same as the decision to actually go back. That would already be going too far, and this is why God wanted to prevent it. Even more generally, a move backwards is something that should only be contemplated when the original move was based on miscalculation. There is a reason we move – we are guided by a need to improve our lot, to move to a better place. Challenges in the new place will inevitably come up. But we persevere, knowing that we have a positive goal. And in the case of the Jews that left Egypt, there could not have been a mistake. For the decision had come from the almighty and all-knowing God. So while mentioning Egypt may have been natural, planning to go back would have been an abdication of the present by living in the past.
Hence the question is why certain challenges like the dearth of water were acceptable, while others like the quicker more belligerent road were not. But to anyone who has raised children, the answer may be obvious. Parents who shield their children from all challenges stunt their growth. Children will not be ready for life if they never have to hunker down and deal with discomfort. A parent may not enjoy watching the child’s discomfort but they know that it is ultimately for their benefit. That being said, a parent is careful not to place the child in front of a challenge that he has almost no chance of overcoming. If the other extreme is stunting, this extreme is downright neglectful. It is not fulfilling the parental responsibility to protect one’s child. Hence good parenting is built upon avoiding these two extremes.
The role that God played towards the Jews in the desert was not far removed from that of a parent. He needed to provide them with the challenges that would allow them to mature – these were the various tests that we see them confronting in the desert. But He could not present them with a challenge so great that they would almost certainly fail it – and that was Derekh Plishtim – the shorter road we encounter at the beginning of the parsha.
Eventually, however, the parent must let go – when the child will have moved enough ahead that they need to meet the challenges on their own. For the Jews, this would come with the task of conquering the land of Israel. It would be a dangerous test, but eventually it would have to be taken.
The benchmark was whether they would decide to go back to Egypt. That this is the bottom line we see from this week’s parsha. This is the death that God protects his child from and this is why He takes them on a longer route on their way out.
Still, he could not do this forever. When it came time to go into the land, the Jews would have to prove themselves. This is when the spies were sent out to spy the land. At that time, they were pushed to the limit. Unfortunately, however, the response to the spies’ report was the decision to live in the past. And the fate of that generation makes it as clear as day that there is no real life with that type of decision.