This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, from the book of Exodus is considered by many rabbis as the central part of our Jewish narrative… the splitting of the Red Sea.
Remember, we had been slaves in Egypt for more than 400 years when God (via Moses) brought the ten plagues unto the Egyptians, the last of which was the slaying of their first born sons.
Only at that point did Pharaoh relent and release us.
And so we began our journey towards Israel.
Looking at a map, one can see that the shortest route from Egypt to Israel is northeast, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Torah tells us that God deliberately did not lead us the shortest route… “because it was near (!) (fearing that) perhaps the people would reconsider when they see a war, and then will return themselves to Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17)
The 10th century sage known as Rashi explains that even though we ‘were armed’ when we left Egypt (Exodus 13:18), God knew that we were in a very vulnerable place, newly freed, and presented with an excuse, we would falter before our journey even began. Success was not a forgone conclusion, for there was the x-factor of human free-will, and the possibility that through wrong choices we could become our own worst enemy.
So God brings us the long way through Sinai, going east and then north with the idea that if we were brought far from Egypt, when the going got tough, we would be much more reluctant to return to our shackles.
Why? Because we know that it is human nature to sometimes choose what is easy, even if it means returning to a state of oppression where we have no options.
Freedom is something that is, at its essence, intensely personal. It is not a place, nor a state of being, but a continuous process where we must drive against forces that would seek to put us in a state of captivity. Given the opportunity, there will always be people, personal tendencies, addictions, and ideas that would enslave us in a New York minute given the chance.
When we are wise, we distance ourselves from tempting self-destructive choices. If we need to, we put distance between our naïve loved ones who might falter and be entrapped if given a chance.
When we read this story on Passover, we are tasked to see it “as if we ourselves were taken out of Egyptian slavery.” May we continue to distance ourselves from what is both easy and harmful, choosing to move continuously towards freedom, even when the way is difficult and long.