If we put ourselves in the place of the Israelites heading to the Land of Israel, the trek described in Bemidbar seems rather tortuous. There we read about a relatively straightforward and short journey that turns into a circuitous journey of forty years.
Though this is the way most readers will understand the story, it is not without room for further thought. What I mean is that one should not automatically conclude that the longer path was the wrong path. In fact, I think hindsight would show just the opposite; that it was actually the right path, if certainly not the easiest one. I will explain, but let’s first look at a story that may shed some light on this.
In Eruvin 53b, we find R. Yehoshua ben Chananyah recounting an enigmatic story in which he asks a certain child for directions. The child tells him that there is a short long path and a long short path. Understanding the first choice to be the better one, R. Yehoshua makes his way down the first path, only to find his destination blocked by orchards and gardens. Rather than trying to make his way around them, he goes back to ask the child whether he had, in fact, not called the way short. The child responds by saying, “True, but I also told you it was long!” Rather than getting angry, R. Yehoshua surprises the reader by praising the boy and calling him exceedingly wise.
There are many questions about this interchange. One question that seems obvious is why the child did not immediately recommend the second path that R. Yehoshua ultimately chose. When Google Maps gives us such a choice without recommending the better path, we hardly consider it great wisdom!
Perhaps the wisdom, however, is in the understanding that there is no such thing as a universally better path. Taking a longer road can be better if it is more scenic or if it leads us to something along the way that enriches us. What is true of length is actually true of any hardship. As the American writer, Henry David Thoreau is credited with saying, “The only people who ever get anyplace interesting are the people who get lost!“
There is indeed wisdom in understanding that a journey is not only about getting from point A to point B. Perhaps the child’s wisdom then was in knowing that he could not really recommend the better path, since there was no such thing – at least not based on R. Yehoshua’s question, which was simply, “Which way should I go?”
To take this one step further, it is possible that even if R. Yehoshua himself had known the exact topography of each path, he still could not have definitely known which would be the better path. Awareness of this limitation is an uncommon wisdom, and perhaps why R. Yehoshua praised the boy so highly. That wisdom begins with knowing that the right path is not only determined by getting somewhere as fast as possible (though it is certainly a legitimate factor). Unfortunately, this is something too frequently forgotten by adults.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as a wrong turn. Though we can even learn from a mistaken path, we have good reason to want to avoid it. The problem with wrong turns is that we are rarely able to truly know that it was a mistake until after the fact.
Getting back to the forty years in the wilderness, because the length of the journey is presented as a punishment for the sin of the spies, we can easily miss that the Jews were not really ready to enter the Land of Israel and set up their own state so shortly after leaving slavery in Egypt. Moreover, it is not just the extra time that enriched – and thereby prepared – them for the next chapter in their lives. It is also the various experiences that would never have happened had they taken the shorter, more direct road.
Something to remember as make our own journey through life.