Because It Was Close

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley







Because it was Close


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha begins with the continuation of the dramatic exit of the Jewish people from Egypt, which began in last week's parasha after the plague of the killing of the firstborn.  After presenting the commandments that will commemorate the Exodus throughout their generations, we rejoin Bnei Yisrael as they journey from their first station at Sukkot, to Etam, at the desert's edge:


17 And it was, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, as it was near; for God said: "Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they return to Egypt."

18 But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

19 And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him; for he had straightly sworn the children of Israel, saying: "God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones away hence with you."

20 And they took their journey from Sukkot and encamped in Etam, in the edge of the wilderness.

21 And Hashem went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, that they might go by day and by night.

22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night departed not from before the people.


A cursory overview of the journey as described in here leads to a simple question.  This section is triumphal in its nature.  The people are armed, and are totally protected.  Hashem's presence surrounds them day and night, in cloud and in fire.  Yet, the first sentence emphasizes which road the people are not to take.  Instead of continuing on their appointed path, traveling by the "Way of the land of the Philistines" would apparently arouse such a fearful reaction on the people's part upon seeing war so quickly after leaving bondage that they would immediately scurry back to Egypt.  This verse is troublesome.  Given the optimism surrounding their leaving, why the need to prevent Bnei Yisrael from continuing forward?


Last year, we discussed how this section parallels the previous description of how the Jewish people haphazardly left Egypt.  Unceremoniously expelled by Pharaoh after the plague of the first-born, they did not even have time to remove the dough from their ovens before embarking on their journey.  Now, their journey is retold, but through the exultant eyes of history.[1]  This year, we shall return to attempting to understand the meanings within this verse, but through understanding its precise syntax.


Let us revisit the verse that begins our section, adding the Hebrew words that are the root of the difficulty:


17 And it was, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu (as it was near); for God said: "Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they return to Egypt."


First, as we’ve noted, the proximity of the land of Canaan should recommend, not discourage where to go!  The verse should have stated that “God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near.”  More importantly, what does the Hebrew word “ki” mean here?  According to the Talmud, the word “ki” carries several meanings – if, perhaps, however, because – depending on the context (Gittin 90a).  Of these options, clearly the understanding because makes the most sense.  Yet why would Hashem avoid a specific path because it was near?  Rashi, on the verse "As it was the shortest route," quotes the Mekhilta: "... if the circuitous route resulted in their saying:  'Let us ... return to Egypt,' how much worse would the direct route have been!"  Rashi notes that "there are many midrashic explanations."  In simpler terms, Rashi translates the word "ki" as "because," explaining why what we assumed to be beneficial to the Jewish people was in fact a liability.  By taking the coastal road to Israel, the opportunity to return to Egypt as soon as they faced their first crisis remained a possibility.  His grandson, the Rashbam also reads the word "ki" as "because."  He differs from Rashi in interpreting the word "close" as referring to Eretz Yisrael, not Egypt.  According to Rashi, the phrase "which was close" means "close to Egypt," making it easier to return there. Taking the nation to Canaan along the more distant desert road would deter the people from returning.  According to the Rashbam, taking the shorter route would have brought the war for the Land earlier.  By delaying the Canaanite wars, the people were less psychologically connected to Egypt when the crisis struck.


The psychological rationale underlying this approach is developed by the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed:


"... it is contrary to human nature that a person  be raised in slavery, doing the most menial of tasks, and promptly wash the filth off his hands and go wage war with  the gigantic Sons of Anak ... God's  wisdom led them roundabout, through the desert, until they learnt to be brave.  It is well-known that traveling in the desert without luxuries such as washing and the like gives rise to bravery, while the opposite gives rise to cowardice.  Furthermore, men not habituated to subservience and slavery were born in the desert." (Guide III:32; see also III:24)


The understanding of the word "ki" as "because" is not universal, however.  The Ibn Ezra, though he personally prefers understanding it as above, brings the opinion of R. Moshe Ha-darshan, who interprets the word "ki" as "even though."  The advantage of this reading is that it maintains our instinctive understanding as the proximity between Egypt and Canaan as positive, not negative.  However, while the Talmud raises four possible translations of the word "ki", this is not one of them.


The Ramban rejects any understanding of the phrase "ki karov hu" as referring to the rationale for Hashem's decision.  Otherwise, he argues, the words would have appeared in a different order – "And it was, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, for God said: "Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they return to Egypt, ki karov hu (as it was near)."  Instead, he interprets ki karov hu as "which was close," referring to the path traversing the land of the Philistines.  Even though this route was shorter, God wished to avoid war with the Philistines.  However, the Ramban is confronted with the difficulty that on the longer route they meet Amalek instead of the Philistines.  However, modern scholarship offers a different solution to our quandary, resembling the Ramban's interpretation.  Reliefs on the walls of the temple at Karnak (dating to the rule of Pharaoh Seti I, near the end of the thirteenth century BCE), show that the entire northern Sinai coastal region as under direct Egyptian sovereignty, with Egyptian military outposts all along the way.  Apparently, the Jewish people feared a trap, and avoided the coastal road from the outset.  Plausible though this theory may sound, the reason it proposes for the change of route is not what the Torah mentions.  Hashem didn't fear the Egyptians, but the desire of the Jews to return to Egypt.


Rashi alluded to several non-peshat interpretations in the Midrash, some of which can be found in the Da'at Zekeinim Mi-ba'alei Ha-tosafot.  One approach argues that the Philistines were relatives (in Hebrew – karovim) of the Egyptians, and would therefore attack the Jewish people to defend their family honor.  Another midrash describes, based on allusions from Divrei Ha-yamim, how members of the tribe of Efrayim attempted to leave Egypt early, but were unsuccessful.  According to this tradition, the Philistines left their remains on the road to Egypt to deter any further attempts by Benei Yisrael to enter.  Another approach translates ki karov hu as Hashem (the hu) being close to the Jewish people – due to his love for them, he didn't want them to face any difficulties upon leaving. 


All of these interpretations, whether literal or midrashic, fail to address the cardinal problem: the upcoming war at the Yam Suf with Egypt.  The people, as soon as they saw the advancing Egyptian legions, began to panic, with reason.  This conflict was potentially far more deadly than any war with the Amalekites, Canaanites or Philistines that had been avoided by the circuitous route could have been.  It would have occurred within a week of leaving Egypt, with the Jewish people weak and disorganized.  How did not taking the coastal road prevent this?  Clearly, Hashem had a different purpose in mind. In the Yam Suf, the Jewish people watched as Hashem fought against their ancient oppressors for the final time.  From here onward, however, the Jewish people had to learn to fight their own battles.  When Amalek attacks at the end of the parasha, it is Yehoshua who leads the people in organized battle.  Hashem's role is not minimized – the victory is attributed to Moshe's prayer.  However, clearly the Jewish people are not to be passive onlookers.  They must now take up arms and be partners in deciding their fate.  When they fight for Eretz Yisrael forty years later, after Yericho, they must go to war with their arms and blood.  No longer are they passive while Hashem fights their battles.  This may be the underlying message of ki karov hu – the TIME for entering the land is too close.  The people are not ready, and Hashem must choose an alternative route until they mature.