Parashat Beshalach begins by stating that God deliberately led Benei Yisrael along a circuitous route toward the Land of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt. He figured that if they journeyed along a straight, direct path, such that a potential trek back to Egypt would be relatively simple and straightforward, then they might likely try returning at the first sign of trouble. God therefore led Benei Yisrael along a roundabout route which made the prospect of returning to Egypt less appealing.
Rashi, commenting on the opening verse of this parasha, writes, “If even when He brought them along a roundabout, indirect route, they said, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt,’ then if they had traveled a direct [path] – all the more so.” The reference here is to the story of the spies, when Benei Yisrael’s panicked upon hearing the spies’ report about the frightening armies and fortresses of the Canaanite nations, and they announced, “Nitena rosh ve-nashuva Mitzrayema” – “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (Bamidbar 14:4). In his comments here in Parashat Beshalach, Rashi implicitly raises the question of how this could have happened, that Benei Yisrael planned to return to Egypt. After all, God had strategized to avoid such an initiative by leading the nation along a circuitous route which made the idea of returning to Egypt impractical. Is it possible that God’s plan failed? Rashi’s answer is that Benei Yisrael’s decision to try returning to Egypt in reaction to the spies’ report precisely shows how important it was to make such an endeavor unappealing. If they entertained such an idea even after journeying along a roundabout route, then this would have happened more easily had they traveled in a direct path.
Explaining Rashi’s comments further, Siftei Chakahmim notes that Rashi specifically cited Benei Yisrael’s pronouncement, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” – indicating that they needed leadership to return to Egypt. Siftei Chakhamim understands Rashi to mean that if the nation had traveled along a direct route, then they could have returned to Egypt even without having to appoint a leader, and thus this would have been more likely to happen. By bringing Benei Yisrael in a roundabout route, God saw to it that they would be unable to return to Egypt without new, competent leadership, and this thus reduced the chances of their entertaining such a possibility.
Benei Yisrael’s journey from Egypt toward the Land of Israel has been viewed by many as symbolic of our personal journeys away from spiritual “exile,” our lifelong process of growth and pursuit of sanctity. As Rashi noted in regard to our ancestors’ journey, there is never any guarantee that we will not seek to return to “Egypt,” that we will not regress and repeat our past mistakes. Just as Benei Yisrael sought to return to Egypt when they realized the struggles that awaited them in Canaan, we, too, might despair in times of struggle, and decide that we are better off in “Egypt,” and should not bother persisting in our challenging quest for spiritual achievement. What we can do is reduce the chances of such a “return” by establishing proper routines and habits, to put ourselves in conditions and in a mindset that are likely to keep us on course. We should try, at very least, to make the prospect of spiritual decline counterintuitive, a process that would require a new “rosh,” a fundamental transformation of our mindset, of our outlook and our ambitions. This will increase our chances of staying on the path that leads us to the life of sanctity and religious devotion that we are to live.