Reconsidering Return

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Parshat Beshalach begins with a curious statement: “...When Pharaoh sent the people out… God did not lead them by way of the Land of the Philistines, because it was close, for God said, ‘Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war and they will return to Egypt.’...The Children of Israel were armed when they went out from Egypt.”

            Whoa! Bnei Yisroel had been subjugated to such devastating and harsh enslavement for hundreds of years. Now they bore witness to a miraculous salvation preceded by countless other miracles including ten plagues. Could they doubt Hashem’s ability to continue to be with them? Why would they possibly want to return to their previous condition? But perhaps their conditions would change. After all, the Egyptians had lent them so much gold and silver, and even now were accompanying them out of the land. Perhaps conditions had changed. So Hashem had to prove to Bnei Yisroel that the Egyptians still hated them and were now pursuing them to kill them. Bnei Yisroel would face reality and not want to return, writes Rav Yosef Salant z”l in Be’er Yosef.

            And, in the above verse, what was “close”, the “it” that would would cause them to want to return to Egypt. Could it be that they were afraid of war? Rabbi Schlesinger points out in Eleh Hadevarim that the next verse specifically notes that Bnei Yisroel left Egypt armed for battle.

            And therein lies one clue, continues Rabbi Schlesinger. Throughout the story of the exodus, our nation is referred to by two different connotations. We are sometimes called ha’am/the people, and sometimes called Bnei Yisroel/The Children of Israel. There is a world of difference between these two terms.Ha’am/the people generally refers to the lower elements of the nation, the erev rav/mixed multitude of Egyptians who joined the nation upon their exodus. [I am convinced that the English word riffraff is derived from erev rav. CKS] While Bnei Yisroel was indeed prepared for war, both emotionally and physically, the mixed multitude, the am, had little faith, The believers cry out to Hashem; the non believers panic. And at the crossing of the Red Sea it is Bnei Yisroel who sing praises to Hakodosh Boruch Hu along with Moshe. Hashem was concerned the am would influence Bnei Yisroel.

            The Ner Uziel, relying on the interpretation of Targum Yonasan, presents a historical perspective for the people’s fears. A group from the tribe of Ephraim had miscalculated the salvation by thirty years, starting from the prophecy to Abraham rather than from the birth of Yitzchak. Based on this error, they left Egypt, only to be slaughtered by the Philistines. Their bones remained unburied. Had Hashem led our people along this path, they would see the bones and might have imagined that Hashem took them to the desert to slaughter them for their depraved state, and He would then choose another nation. After all, if the previous group had been slaughtered due to their miscalculation, perhaps the servitude of two hundred ten years was also an error, for the prophecy had predicted 400 year of slavery. Better to go back and complete the term of enslavement than to die in the desert.

            People are generally afraid of change, and moving forward requires change note both the Ohr Daniel and Chochmat Hamatzpun, among others. We choose what we see to reinforce what we want to do. Using this psychology, the yetzer horo was playing with normal human weaknesses, as it plays on our own weaknesses. It is so hard to take the first step toward growth and healing, whether psychological or spiritual.  We must push ourselves to make the extrabrachah, to get up and go to the shiur, or any other increase in observance, and even in our sensitivity and response to others.

            How can we subdue the yetzer horo? The Netivot Shalom offers two approaches. We can ask Hashem to free us from its clutches, for we are too weak and will succumb. While this may be effective in the short term, the yetzer horo is still there, waiting to spring into action. The more effective approach is for us to work hard to get rid of the source of the problem and ask for Hashem’s help in our efforts. This way, you will eliminate the source of the yetzer horo’s power.

            This was the plan of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. While our faith was a gift from Hashem when He took us out of Egypt, we had to fortify that faith within ourselves by our own actions. Otherwise, although we were physically redeemed from Egypt, we would still be enslaved to the Egyptian mentality. Hashem brought us to Yam Suf so that we would be forced to act on our faith and solidify it by jumping into the Sea, thereby breaking the psychological ties to Egypt.

            This is the model for each of us as we face our challenges on a daily basis. Hashem is always with us ready to help us, but He is waiting for us to take that first necessary leap of faith. It takes both our own self sacrifice and effort along with Hashem’s help to overcome the power of the yetzer horo.

            When we can see the larger picture, we will come close to Hashem, korov Hu, and realize that He doesn’t treat us like other nations. Often, the circuitous route is the one that is most beneficial to us. [We may recall the riddle of the two routes to our destination. Shall we take the short and long route, or the long and short route? Shall we take the path that appears easy at the outset but later is full of unseen obstacles and brambles, or should we take the route that may be longer in distance, but has no hidden pitfalls? What would WAZE choose? CKS]

            It is our choice, and Hashem wanted us to retain our free choice even after our miraculous redemption, explains the Steipler Gaon z”l. Would we follow Him faithfully when difficulties seemed to present themselves on the way, or would we revert to our earlier slave and Egyptian mentality? The circuitous route with the Sea in front of us clarified the choice. Just as we have this choice to leave good and do evil, we have a similar choice when confronted with evil to choose to do the more difficult good. If we recall that man is comprised of both a physical body and a spiritual Godly component, notes Rabbi Chasman z”l, we will realize that a human being is always in a state of conflict, and multiple emotions can coexist within him. He may be happy to be free one moment and afraid of freedom the next, writes Rabbi Zaichick z”l. How is this possible? Man’s physical aspect can be likened to a horse, explains Rabbi Schach in Letitcha Elyon. Unless it is controlled by the rider, it will run amok, doing whatever strikes his fancy at the moment. But a person must exert mental and spiritual control over himself and train himself, or he may put himself in danger. We must take back the reins and control our “horse”. If we fall, adds Rabbi Pliskin, we must quickly get up and regain control. It was not the spiritual part of the Jew that wanted to return to Egypt, but the physical part that prefers the status quo.

            It is along these lines that Rabbi Schwadronz”l interprets ki karov hu/that it is near to us. People prefer the known challenges to the unknown ones. People like the comfort of the familiar. The People were familiar with the challenges of slavery, but were not familiar with the challenges of war, and so they were ready to return to Egypt. Similarly, we are familiar with our spiritual level and find it difficult to make changes. But once we make a change and practice that improvement regularly, that stage becomes the norm and we can begin working on another point of improvement. The trick is to act immediately at the moment of inspiration so the impetus for change does not pass.

            Each day should be a day of spiritual growth, even if with only one brachah, writes the Ohr Daniel, Rabbi Daniel Ochyan. That is the only way to counteract the daily onslaught of the yetzer horo which understands that people are afraid to change themselves.

            The pendulum swung quickly for Bnei Yisroel in Egypt. But the pendulum swings both ways, and could easily swing back and take Bnei Yisroel back to their previous state. Therefore it was necessary to burn the bridges so that Bnei Yisroel could not return to Egypt, writes the Sifsei Chaim. The road is always unclear. We never know when we may be walking into a minefield, adds Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah. By making a clean break, you will not go back along the same dangerous path you started out on. This is true along every path of our life, and we must clear the minefield for ourselves and for others wherever we are, especially in our homes for our children. We can always be affected by our surroundings.

            It is difficult to be objective about challenges in our own lives, but if we recognize the problem and are able to remain calm, perhaps viewing it as someone else’s problem rather than our own, we are more likely to find an appropriate solution. Hashem took us on this circuitous route so we would not encounter the minefields around us.

             Nevertheless, minefields surround us throughout society in our daily lives. We must choose what we will allow into our homes and into our lives. We must build a fence around ourselves and our families to protect us from the constant bombardment of negative influences within our society, writes Rabbi Noach Weinberg z”l. True freedom writes Rabbi Weunberg z”l “is the ability to say, ‘I choose not to partake.’ “

            Hashem was concerned that a momentary thought would undermine the entire structure of what He had done for them. Therefore He took them on a circuitous route. Similarly, although to a much lesser degree, we can ruin the entire worth of a mitzvah, writes Rabbi Schraga Grosbard. If we suddenly feel a moment of remorse in doing a mitzvah, the time expended or the money spent, or the energy expended, we are undermining the value of the entire mitzvah. Embrace the mitzvah, and know that sometimes the extra effort or time is the circuitous route Hashem is specifically giving us so that we may come closer to Him.