Beshalach: Too Near

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 year ago

      Hebrew, once seriously studied, turns out to be a language of infinite depth; and this week, we scratch the surface of that depth with the common word כי, one of the first a new speaker would learn. Reish Lakish[1] gives four (Aramaic) definitions of the word: אי—if; דלמא—perhaps; אלא—rather; and, finally, the one that is typically taught at the outset, דהא—because.

      In the first verse of our parashah, God does not send us through the land of the Philistines כי it is near, כי God says He wants to avoid the nation changing its mind when it sees war, and returning to Egypt. Had we not known it before, looking at the commentaries to this verse would make it clear that Reish Lakish’s definitions are actually four broad categories, with various more specific subcategories of meaning.

      Ibn Ezra cites R’ Moshe, who interprets the verse as although it is near (though Ibn Ezra himself disagrees); many translations, both Jewish and not, follow this interpretation. The Ramban interprets it as saying “through the land of the Philistines which is near.” Rashi, while noting that there are many midrashim, only explicitly suggests because it is near. Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, who interprets it as Rashi does, notes that this is normally a good reason to follow the route rather than avoid it. Rashi, in his interpretation, essentially writes that nearness also makes it easy to return. The implication is that when slaves head to greater freedom, there is a significant danger of them returning. The Torah will bring up this danger over and over, as the Jews grumble, complain that they were taken out of Egypt, and even suggest appointing a new leader and returning there.

      Rabbi Eliezer[2], rather than just judging the grumbling, notes that instead of refusing to follow Moshe until they knew how they would eat, the Jews simply went; Rabbi Eliezer cites Yirmiyahu 2:2: “I have remembered for you the lovingkindness of your youth… your going after Me in the desert, in an unknown land.” This is not so simple for slaves, accustomed to being taken care of.

      God understands the difficulties of Israel as well. This is why He leads them openly, with clouds in the daytime and fire at night; and this is why He sees the closeness of the Philistine route as a liability rather than an asset.

      Today, we are not the slaves we were when leaving Egypt, and wherever in the world we may be, we have more direct routes than ever before. Babylon may have been closer to Israel than the United States, but the trek from there two millennia ago was much longer than the flight from Los Angeles today, and likely cost a bigger fraction of one’s yearly income back then. In tandem with that, we see frequently that Jews make aliyah and, within some years or decades, leave. New Jersey is full of such Jews.

      One may think this is just because life is too cozy in the West, too economically comfortable to resist. But to disabuse ourselves of that notion, all we need to do is look at the situation with Russian Jews in the early 1990s. The economic situation in Russia was dire. And until shortly before then, Jews traveling to Israel from the Soviet Union were truly in a לך לך situation, walking through a door into the unknown, which slammed shut behind them; whatever the future held, it involved very little contact with friends and family left behind, and virtually no chance of return.

      On March 7, 1992, a Washington Post reporter interviewed Yosef Ben-Dor, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Moscow:

      Since Soviet law changed last July, allowing emigres to retain their citizenship here, Ben-Dor added, “the psychological climate” has changed as well. Jews who once left Russia thinking they would never return can now come back to visit relatives or conduct business.

      What was the result in 1992?

      The shelves may be bare and the future uncertain, but an increasing number of Jews are reversing a historic process and returning from Israel to Russia and Ukraine.

      Scores or hundreds are coming back each month. While they remain far fewer than the thousands still going the other way, their return is a striking reflection of changes in both countries—of the demise of the Soviet Union, where many Jews once felt imprisoned, and of economic troubles in Israel, where golden optimism about mass immigration has been supplanted by job and housing woes.

      The reverse migration is remarkable given the continuing downward spiral of living standards here [in Moscow] and the fears of rekindled antisemitism.

      Particularly striking is the portrait of Nikolai Efanov, 43, who “went to Israel without his wife and family, hoping to establish himself and then bring them along.”

      When he returned after a year, Efanov said he was “shocked” by the economic deterioriation in Russia. “Of course, I got letters, read newspapers, listened to the radio,” he said. “But I could never imagine it would really be this bad.”

      “I like it more there. I didn’t want to come back, but I had no choice,” said Efanov, still wearing an Israeli flag lapel pin.

      So what happened?

      [H]e found housing costs exorbitant. He tried life on a kibbutz and in the desert, but could not find work there. He scouted opportunities for his wife, an advanced aircraft engineer, and decided she too would be unlikely to find work in her field.

      Was the economic situation in Israel worse than that in Russia in 1992? That is highly unlikely. But a rapid transition is extremely disorienting, and it is much easier to return to something familiar. We see this over and over again with Jews wishing to return to Egypt. In the second verse of our parashah, the Jews are described as חמשים. Rashi primarily interprets this in the simplest way (i.e. “armed”), but, at the end of his note on that word, he quotes an interpretation from the Mekhilta that only one out of five Jews left Egypt, the rest perishing in the plague of darkness. We interpret Rabbi Nehorai, the one cited in the Mekhilta in this instance, as talking about a spiritual death—an unwillingness to leave one’s familiar surroundings—and the darkness in the plague, under that interpretation, refers to the disorientation involved, which can throw off one’s values and direction[3].

      Of course, not all Jews who return are disoriented. Some come back to take care of sick parents, or because their services are sorely needed by communities outside of Israel. Some, after a difficult fight to live in Israel, leave to gather themselves, financially or otherwise, and then head back to Israel to try again. These are completely different categories of leaving Israel.

      All the Jews returning to Russia interviewed in the 1992 Washington Post article, however, have one thing in common: they do not have a clear Torah reason for going to Israel. They went for economic reasons, or to escape anti-Semitism. We do not judge them—they had lived their entire life in darkness. We prefer to take the view of Rabbi Eliezer, praising them for trying out going to Israel in the first place, blindly making that jump; but the fact is that it was too near: they got there quickly, and they did not have a chance to learn what their journey was about. They do not see a serious reason to move there—and that is not out of ignorance, for neither do many frum Jews.

      God does not lead Israel by the direct route because it is too near. We spend a generation in the desert, transitioning. Those 40 years are sometimes portrayed as an easy life of eating manna. In some sense, it is, but it also involves traumatic events that affect our national psyche to this day—including Sinai itself. This process of learning and growth is necessary for us to be able to enter the promised land in a prepared way.

      In Ahavah Rabah, we ask God, in the merit of the אבות who believed in Him, ותלמדם חקי חיים כן תחננו ותלמדנו—“and You taught them the rules of life, so love us and teach us.” The way in which the אבות learned involved many troubles; and that may be precisely an expression of God’s חן. When God teaches us, it is often through the difficulties and traumas in our lives. Otherwise, the destination is too near.

      [1] Gittin 90a, right in the middle of the page
      [2] Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael on Shmot 15:22
      [3] R. Nehorai states that in the darkness, the Jews were able to bury their dead without anybody seeing. And indeed, by our interpretation, when values are so unclear, the surrounding non-Jews would not notice any spiritual death in Jews who do not see their Jewish mission clearly.

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