When Pharaoh sent away the people God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was the shortest route; for God said, “The people might change their minds should they encounter war, and return to Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17)
I once wasted an entire day driving around the city of Chicago in a futile pursuit for a “short cut” (and, being a man, adamantly refusing to ask directions). I learned, the hard way, that sometimes what purports to be a quick and easy route turns out to be just the opposite. More often than not, in both navigation and life itself, there are no real short cuts.
We see this on our portion for this week, Beshallach. God takes the Israelites out of Egypt by a circuitous path. Why? Rashi tells us that if we had gone the direct route, it would have been too easy to turn back. Other commentators add that the whole point of the wandering in the wilderness is for us to learn along the way. Our journey is not just a physical one; we need the time and experience to make the deeper transformation from a ragtag bunch of former slaves to a truly free people.
So, too, for each of us. We err when, too focused on some distant endpoint, we fail to appreciate and learn from our encounters along the way. There are no easy paths to wisdom and spiritual growth. As the old story goes, wisdom consists of good judgment. Good judgment is born of experience. And experience is gained through—bad judgment.
Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a powerful insight along these lines based on a famous phrase from Psalm 23: “God leads me on straight paths for the sake of God’s name.” Kushner writes: “The Hebrew phrase translated as ‘straight paths’ [ma’agley tzedek] actually says something more complex and interesting than the translation would convey. It literally means ‘roundabout ways that end up in the right direction.’ Maybe in plane geometry the shortest distance between two pints is a straight line. But in life the shortest distance to our goal may be an indirect, roundabout route. The straight line between us and our goal may have hidden traps or land mines, or it may be too easy and never challenge us to discover our strengths or give us time to let those strengths emerge.”
This week, in Torah, we begin again on the long walk toward freedom, as a people and in our own lives. There are no shortcuts, for the learning can only come along the way.
But being older and a, hopefully, a little wiser, I’ll now admit: it really is OK to ask for directions.