Parshat Beshalach – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
Our Parsha opens with the exodus from Egypt to Eretz Israel. Immediately the Torah delineates G-d's strategy, which determined the route through which He would take Am Israel out of Egypt and toward the Land of Israel: "And it was, when Pharaoh sent out the nation, that G-d did not take them through the land of the Philistines… and G-d sent them in a circular route through the desert." (Shemot 13:17) A long and roundabout route; not short, straightforward and direct.
This was out of "consideration" for the level of the nation's "spirit" and "national motivation" as well as its strength and resilience at that time. "…Since it (the land of the Philistines) was close, and G-d said, lest the nation become discouraged when they see war and return to Egypt." A nation that just now came out of oppressive, humiliating captivity, which didn't allow it to develop either military capability or confidence in being able to stand up to a serious threat. "Because their heart was filled with fear and terror, like all slaves who have been habituated to backbreaking work, and their spirit is low and broken." (Malbim Shemot 13:17) All of these factors influenced the nation's readiness to withstand an immediate military confrontation, which would have occurred if we would have gone the short route. In the future, one of the world's leading military theorists (B. H. Liddell Hart) would name the strategy of avoiding a direct confrontation "The Indirect Approach."
The Talmudic sages and the commentators offer various explanations as to the nature of the challenges we were liable to encounter on the short route. There was apprehension either about war with the military might of the nations of Canaan (Rashbam Shemot 13:17), or war with the Philistines on the way to the Land of Israel ('on the way to the destination') en route to the central war, the conquest of the land ('for the destination'). And by the long, roundabout route Israel could reach its land securely. (Ramban) Alternatively, had we taken the short route, we could have been attacked by Pharaoh from behind and by the Philistines in front of us, and on the long route G-d would lead Pharaoh into the sea. (Bechor Shor) Another possible pitfall of the short route was the emergence of a dilemma, since there was still the possibility of avoiding a confrontation by returning to Egypt. (Rashi. We can learn from this the significance of a "no choice" war in determining a nation's level of spirit, as opposed to a situation where there are other choices and war is one of them, even if it is the best one.) The Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 20:11, and Targum Yonatan there) gives another perspective: The short route was strewn with the bones of members of the tribe of Efraim, who attempted an earlier return to the Land of Israel, and were killed by the Philistines. Seeing this could have demoralized the Jews and broken their spirit.
On the other hand, the long route had the advantage of giving the nation time to strengthen its spirit and raise the level of its "mood" since they were destined to see "signs and wonders" (Rabbenu Hananel) and strengthen their faith in G-d and in their own ability. (Malbim) Over this time crystallized the nation's self-identity and its national consciousness, which are essential to its ability to deal with military challenges. (Emek Davar) The long route increased the merits of Am Israel by virtue of the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 20:15) and provided time for the miracles which would shake the confidence of the Caananite nations. (Midrash Rabbah, Malbim)
The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim) and the Chizkuni stress that it is inconceivable that G-d couldn't deal miraculously with the situation of the nation's psychological insecurity and national immaturity. G-d wanted this uncertainty, which was natural, to be taken into account in determining the strategy of the exodus. It's worth mentioning that we should learn from this that psychological and consciousness issues need to be considered, especially the "level of national spirit" which is one of the strategic factors of the security of a state and a society. This factor has great influence in many fields. In the field of security, it determines the sense of capability, national motivation and resilience in the face of threats. In the social spere, it influences the capacity to cope with crises and tough challenges. Regarding the economy, optimism and satisfaction influence economic activity and the willingness to invest.
Hundreds of years later, we saw an opposite example of how lack of consideration for the mood of the nation led to the division of the kingdom. The people petitioned their new King, Rechavam, to lighten the heavy demands that his father Shlomo put on them, and he ignored them! This paved the way for Yeravam to take over Israel (and brought about the split between the kingdoms of Yehudah and Israel).
The "national mood" is a fundamental and sensitive issue and is susceptible to influence. Leadership which intends to guide a nation to face challenges must be conscious of the level of "national spirit" and not ignore it. A true leader must find authentic ways to strengthen and enhance that spirit.