parshat beshalach (exodus 13-14)
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 13th 2022. God leads the Jews on the scenic (long) route to the Promised Land and the classical commentators wonder why. All of them find a pedagogic approach but their conclusions are diverse and in some cases, perplexing! We join the Israelites as they embark on this fateful trip into the desert and we learn a little something about long roads that are short and God’s Gracious Ruse.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/375388
Geoffrey Stern 00:03
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and that Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. We also host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern, and this week with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we join the Israelites as they embark on a trip into the desert. We are perplexed to see that God sets the GPS to wander mode and puts them on a circuitous route rather than the coastal expressway. So get into the backseat and be prepared to badger the driver and learn a little something about long loads that are short as we explore God’s Gracious Ruse.
Well, welcome for our weekly trip. And this week, we are really on a trip because the Israelites are off to the great adventure of 40 years in the desert. We are in Exodus 13. And it starts when it says, "Now then Pharaoh let the people go. God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines. Although it was nearer. For God said the people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt. So God led the people round about by way of the wilderness at the sea of reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt." And then it continues in Exodus 14. "The Lord said to Moses, tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; and you shall encamp facing it by the sea, feral will say of the Israelites, they are astray in the land, "Nevu heym b'Aretz" The wilderness is closed in on them, then I will stiffen Pharaoh's heart, and He will pursue them that I might gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, and they did so." So we have a combination of two different travelogues if you will, that God prepares for the Jewish people one, even before he takes Pharaoh into consideration. He says, You know what, I'm not going to take you on the short path, I'm going to take you in a circuitous route. And he gives a reason because he's afraid they might have a change of heart. And then he looks at it from the perspective of Pharaoh and says, and there's going to be a real advantage here. Because he's going to think that the Jews are "nevuchim". They are confused. And he'll see this as an opportunity for him to have a change of heart. So Rabbi, what do you make of well, this changing of hearts and circuitous routes?
Adam Mintz 03:05
The Jews were clearly not quite ready to leave Egypt. They left because nobody wants to be a slave. You can take the Jews out of slavery, but their mind still thinks like a slave. And the way a slave thinks is that the first hint of any problem, I just want to go back. At least when I'm a slave, I'm taken care of, I may be persecuted, but at least I'm taken care of I get three meals, I have a place to sleep. And now we're going to get attacked on the way to Israel, and they're going to get afraid. Now, what's interesting is that God seems to be very much aware of this. God is like, like their psychologist. And he says, I can take them that way, I have to take them indirectly. Because only if I take them indirectly, will they kind of learn how to be free. That's also by the way, since we're talking about all this, that's why they don't get to Torah for seven weeks, they need a little bit of time, they can't get the Torah.
Geoffrey Stern 04:13
So I totally agree that there's almost a pedagogic aspect to all this. We are embarking on this great journey. And all of a sudden, by talking in terms of planning a trip and picking a route. We're almost given an opportunity to explore how does one move from one place to another, both physically but also spiritually and psychologically. And I think that's going to be a large part of the conversation. But before we even get there, this also seems to be a little bit of a prophecy or a prequel or a forecasting.... I think most of us who know the Torah believe that the Jews at a certain point were punished to die in the desert, the generation that left Egypt was punished whether it was at the golden calf, whether it was when the spies came back and they cried. And here we have, like we have many times. This this sense of it was predestined, or there are multiple reasons for the same event. Let me just read a little bit from the Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael... ""And Pharaoh will say about the children of Israel: They are nevuchim in the land": "nevuchim" is "confounded," as in (Joel 1:18) "How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle navochu!" Variantly: "nevuchim" — "bewildered," as in (Esther 3:15) "And the king and Haman sat down to feast, and the city of Shushan navochah." Variantly: "And Pharaoh said": He said and he did not know what he was saying. (i.e., unbeknownst to him he was prophesying. On the surface) he was saying that Moses was leading them without knowing where — but "nevuchim" (prophetically) intimates Moses, viz. (Devarim 32:49) "Ascend the Mount Avarim, Mount Nevo, (short for 'nevuchim')." Variantly: "And Pharaoh said," without knowing what he was saying, viz.: Israel are destined to cry ("livkoth" as in "nevochim") in the desert, viz. (Numbers 14:1) There's a play on words in the desert. "And the entire congregation lifted their voices and the people cried (vayivku)" Israel are destined to fall in the desert," So they're almost finding excuses to tie this premonition here, that God wanted the Jews to go in circles "listovev", not so much as a punishment, but as a prophecy. But it just seemed to be a rather profound message of this was necessary.
Adam Mintz 06:54
Yeah, I mean, you know, this was necessary. The question, Geoffrey really is, what's it necessary for?
Geoffrey Stern 07:05
So that that's the million-dollar question.
Adam Mintz 07:08
That's really what we need to talk about tonight, you're right, the Torah itself, even before you get to the Mechilta, the Torah itself says it was necessary. Had they done it the other way, it would have been bad. So, it was necessary. But nobody tells you exactly what it was necessary for. So, I gave this theory that they had to get the slave mentality out of their system. But really, I made that up. Why doesn't the Torah tell us why it's necessary?
Geoffrey Stern 07:39
So I think if you look at the actual verses that we just read, it says the people may have a change of heart when they see war. "Pen Yinachem hAm b're'otem milchama", maybe it's war, maybe it's trouble, maybe it's a tribulation, maybe it's hard work, and return to Egypt. And of course, returning to Egypt is something that we see throughout the book of Exodus, wherever things get tough. Their first response is nostalgically to say, let's go back to Egypt. So, I think even in the verses themselves, in terms of the mindset of the Jews, there is this sense that God changed the travelogue in order to ensure that the Jews would be protected from making that knee jerk reaction and heading home at the first sight of whether it was war, or some sort of turmoil, stress or challenge.
Adam Mintz 08:42
But it's really unbelievable, because can you imagine being a slave and going back to slavery? Now, I'm not an expert on the Civil War. But, you know, when the slaves were freed in the south, after the Civil War, you know, they had trouble. We know that trouble... took 100 years for there to be equal rights. For, you know, for black people. Did they go back today asked to be slaves again? Were there a group that said it's better to be slaves then to be free? Maybe there were, but that would be interesting.
Geoffrey Stern 09:22
I think what it does, is this points a little bit at how unique the Exodus story was an is in terms of disruption. How many times do you have a people that has this opportunity to make a total paradigm shift? And I think that maybe makes this whole question of this pedagogic question that much more interesting. So, let's start looking at how some of the classical commentaries look at this from a pedagogic point of view. The Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael in another place says "for it was near". They pick up on the verse that says he didn't want them to go through the Philistine route because it was too near "The holy one bless it be he did not bring them directly to Eretz Israel. But by way of the desert, saying if I bring them they are now immediately. "m'yad" is the Hebrew word. Each man will seize his field and each man his vineyard and they will neglect Torah study. Rather, I will keep them in the desert 40 years eating mana and drinking from the well and the Torah will be absorbed in their bodies. From here Rabbi Shimon would say the Torah was given to be expounded only by the eaters of Mana, and like them, the eaters of Terumah." So this is kind of fascinating. It's, it's really, I mean, there are two aspects of it. The first aspect I absolutely love, where he picks up on this thing about Karov about being near, about being near and he moves it from something that is temporal, in terms of space, to something that is from a perspective of time, that there is an evolution that had to occur, you can get miracles in Egypt, you can get miracles at the Red Sea, you can't change a person's heart or a person's mind in the same miraculous fashion. Then, of course, he transitions into a yeshiva student to a teacher, and talks about the best way to study Torah is in the desert, away from distractions. But again, it's wonderful that from this perspective, and many that we'll see, they all saw these few verses, as the paradigm of how does one create change inside of a person and inside of a people.
Adam Mintz 12:00
Right? That's correct. That's really the story of 40 years in the desert. The reason for 40 years in the desert, was in order to create that that paradigm shift where the Jews go from being slaves in Egypt, to being free people, you know, there is work done. I'm not sure about what happened after the Civil War. But there is a lot of work done about countries that have revolutions. And it's interesting that very often, the one who leads the revolution is not the one who's a successful leader of the country going forward. It needs a transition phase. And that's really what you have in the Torah, you have a transition phase. And if you want to be honest, Moshe, who is the one who leads them out. He's the Liberator can't be the one who takes them into the land of Israel.
Geoffrey Stern 13:03
You know, I think that's a good point. But I'd also kind of argue that we're not yet there... these verses include a premonition, and they already have a premonition about wandering in the desert. I don't think the premonition is yet here, that after the wandering, you won't get into the land. I think that's another step.
Adam Mintz 13:25
But I'm just saying that it's interesting. This is the beginning of that process that will lead us there.
Geoffrey Stern 13:33
Adam Mintz 13:35
By the way, you didn't talk about the fact that there's you know, there's a lot of complaining starts this week,
Geoffrey Stern 13:43
the complaining starts from day one, right?
Adam Mintz 13:46
That's right. Yeah. They cross the sea. They see the biggest miracle in the history. What do they do? They complain.
Geoffrey Stern 13:55
So let's get back to some of the lessons that the classical commentaries take. The next I'm going to quote is Rabeinu Bachya and and he says, that what we are just seeing "is characteristic of the way God dealt with the Israelites in the desert. They were to be raised gradually to a level of trust and the word in Hebrew is b'madregot ha'bitachon" "degrees". I think if there's one takeaway from tonight's discussion, is that faith doesn't come in a moment. Whether it's from the previous perspective of studying Torah, whether it's perspective of Rabeinu Bachya, where you're trying to get faith, there is no fast-food solution. There is no silver bullet. This question of a "milchama" could be a war, but it's also turmoil. You know, there's an expression we know it from the New Testament it says "seek and thou shall find" In the Talmud, it's "Yagat u'metzat, T'amin" If somebody works hard at something, and they find it, believe them, but if they say "Lo Yagata umatzata al ta'amin", if they say now I just discovered this, I didn't work hard at all. Don't believe them if he said he found the answer. So I think it's clearly this sense of degrees. And you find this so much in religious thinking that one has to plod from one level to the next, that faith and understanding is cumulative. And Rabeinu Bachya brings a number of examples, which I think are kind of interesting, he says, "This is why God parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds only a little bit at a time. That is why even at Marah where God showed Moses how to make sweet water which had become bitter sweet again, God went to the trouble of first miraculously making that water bitter and then performing a second miracle. And Rabeinu Bachya goes on and on he writes for another three paragraphs, giving his I guess, exegesis on multiple miracles where he shows that the idea is not to stun, the idea is not to shock, the idea is to gradually, step after step, bring a person from where they are, to where they want to be. And he uses words like "davar Yom b'yomo" day after day "likvoa b'nafshotam midat habitachon" to create in them this trait of faith. I think that's fascinating.
Adam Mintz 16:49
I would agree that that is fascinating. What do you think he has in mind? What do you think? What's the bigger issue that he's really addressing there?
Geoffrey Stern 17:01
Well, I think what he's saying is from these verses, we learn that going out on this journey is not simply about going to a destination, but it's how one gets there. And there's so much that needs to be learned from that journey. There's a Hebrew expression that comes from the Talmud that talks about short paths that are long and long paths that are short. And I think that is part of what he's saying that there are steps that need to be taken to to achieve the desired result. So the Gomorrah in Eruvin, said that there was an incident of a young boy, one time the great Yehuda HaNasi, was walking along the path. And he saw a young boy sitting at the crossroads. And I said to him, on which path Shall we walk in order to get to the city, he said, to me, this path is short and long. And that path is long and short. I walked on the path that was short and long. When I approached the city, I found that gardens and orchards surrounded it. And I did not know the trails leading through them to the city. I went back and met the young boy again and said to him, my son, didn't you tell me that this was short. He said to me, and didn't I tell you that it was also long, I kissed him on his head and said to him, happy are you Oh, Israel, for you are all exceedingly wise from your old to your young." So I think it's a beautiful expression, Ketzara varucha arucha v'kitzara" could the short path that is long, the quick fix that doesn't quite work, and the struggle that fixes everything? And I think ultimately, that's also a kind of a character lying in this discussion.
Adam Mintz 19:01
I think that's a great idea. That idea that the quick fix doesn't work is definitely a lesson that we have from this week's Parsha. From the very, very beginning, right? The Quick Fix was to go up the coast and to be in Israel in 11 days, "Achad asar yom meHorev derech har seir ad kadesh barnea" 11 days, but that would have been the quick fix. And that would have been disastrous. The amazing thing is that from the beginning, God's watching out for the people. It's not in God's best interest, either if we're allowed to say, to have the quick fix, and that the people get scared and want to run back.
Geoffrey Stern 19:42
Absolutely. Well, you know, God's part of the team.
Adam Mintz 19:45
Yeah, God says that the purpose of the of the plagues is to prove to the Egyptians and the Jews that God is God. Interesting. When Pharaoh ultimately throws the Jews out after the plague of the first born in last week's Parsha, he says to Moses and Aaron, get out of here. And then he adds three words, he says, And when you go and pray to your God, pray on my behalf to, I think those are the best three words in the whole Torah. Because right there, Pharaoh says, I finally believe in your God, pray for me too.
Geoffrey Stern 20:29
You reminded me about the 10 plagues. And as long as we're picking up on this sense of what Rabeinu Bachya was saying about Madregod about degrees, in a sense, there's a real powerful theme here, even for the Egyptians, who ultimately God was trying to teach a lesson to, he didn't just go to the 10th plague, there's this sense of an evolution, of a transition, small steps. And I think that has to be one of the powerful lessons of the Parsha. So now we're going to transition to the most absolutely radical explanation for going in circuitous routes, and, and going slowly, and it comes from a great rabbi and a great philosopher, who also happened to be a great doctor. And he starts the discussion by talking about biology. And he's almost prescient, in terms of if you listen to what I'm going to read. now, this almost sense of, of evolution, but his name is Rav Moshe Ben, Maimon, Maimonides himself. And he writes in Guide for the Perplexed..... and before I start, remember, the Jews are "Nevuchim", they are confused in the desert. That's the name of the book, we're going to be reading from the guide for the Nevuchim, he doesn't make the connection. This is only one of the radical ideas in his book, but maybe it's a seminal idea. So here we go. And he's talking about biology. He says, In considering the divine acts or the processes of nature, we get an insight into God's willy graciousness, the Hebrew. .... And of course, the Moreh Nevuchim was written in Arabic. So when you say the Hebrew, you have to say, who you're you're quoting, we're quoting [Samuel ben Judah ibn] Tibon, who was the first translator of it, he goes, "Aramat Ha'elokut" L'arom is to lie... so the Diety's willy graciousness as displayed in the creation of animals with the gradual development of the movements of their limbs and the relative position of the later. And we perceive also his willy graciousness. Now he uses a second word, "Tachluvot" , which is kind of subterfuge in the successive and gradual developments of the whole condition of each individual. And he goes through different animals. And he talks about how certain limbs are used at one time, and then stop being used, but they have their value. And the most powerful final example that he gives is mammals who wean their children. He says, Therefore, breasts were provided which yield milk. And the young can be fed with moist food, which corresponds to the condition of the limbs of the animal, until the later have gradually become dry, and hard. So the breasts are full of milk for a while, and then the child matures, and they dry up. It's an example of planned obsolescence, if you will. And he uses this discussion of biology, to segue into how God educated the children of Israel. And he starts by saying, "it is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything which he has been accustomed. And he goes on to talk about how the ultimate goal of leaving Egypt, after all he was an Aristotelian was to contemplate the divine. And how do you get from living as a slave in a society where there are idols and there were sacrifices, how do you get from there to this sublime state, and he writes that it was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as disclosed in biology in the whole of creation, that he did not command us to give up and discontinue all these manners of service for to obey such a commandment would be contrary to the nature of men. So he says, Therefore God allowed these kinds of services to continue. He created a temple, he created sacrifices. And he goes, I'm not going to wean you from sacrifices, I'm not going to wean you from bowing down and from touching a holy stone, and looking in a particular direction to find God, I'm just going to change that. So you go to my temple, and you sacrifice to me, by this divine plan, it was affected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out. And the truly great principle of our faith, the existence of unity of God was firmly established. Does Maimonides know how radical an idea he's saying is that he's basically writing off all of the temple sacrificial cult, as a stepping stone as a necessary ruse a trick to get people from one place to another, he continues, "I know that you will at first reject this idea and find it strange. How can you suppose that all of these commandments were just employed, not for themselves, but to go to something else?" He goes, what would happen if somebody showed up today, and told us you don't have to wear tefillin, you don't have to pray three times a day, just contemplate God. He says we would also be upset. But he says it's written in the Torah. God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines flow that was near for God said ..... so he quotes our verse and he says, Here God led the people about away from the direct road, which he originally intended, because he feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength. He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby his original object. It was the result of God's wisdom that the Israelites were led out into the wilderness till they acquired courage. And he uses this same word of it was a divine ruse. It was trickery, if you will. And it was a very radical statement, I encourage you to go to the show notes and Safaria, and read the whole text that's built logically and forward. And that was his takeaway. And it's a radical takeaway, if you take it to its full meaning, which that he was basically saying even the tefillin, at fill in everything that we do is a trick or a ruse, or I would say it in a more nice term, a tool to get us to somewhere else.
Adam Mintz 28:06
I like the word tool. It's a tool to get us where we need to go. It's not in itself a goal.
Geoffrey Stern 28:13
But it is a pretty radical idea?
Adam Mintz 28:16
Crazy, but fascinating. It's so good, that everything we do is just to get us to the goal. But each one of these actions is not in itself valuable. Now, I think that Rambam would probably say that once you're going through them, though, you have to do them properly. means let's take tefillin. So tefillin’s not important for itself. It's important where it takes us but to put on tefillin wrong to do the wrong act in the ritual, to perform the Seder incorrectly to observe Yom Kippur incorrectly, I don't think Rambabu like that, either.
Geoffrey Stern 29:01
Not like that! I mean, he is a man who dedicated his wife life to codifying Jewish law [laughs].
Adam Mintz 29:08
That's what I'm saying, the codification of the detail is important, because it leads us somewhere else. Don't think the ultimate is just putting on the tefillin. The tefillin are a tool to get us where we need to go.
Geoffrey Stern 29:26
So we're running out of time, but let me give you a little bit of the history of this idea. The Ramban, Nachmonidies in Leviticus absolutely goes ballistic against Maimonides for saying this. And he says How could you possibly say this? Your your belittling the sacrifices which actually Noah gave and he goes on and on. We have to remember that Ramban lived in a Christian world He actually had to go into debate with Christians. And this concept that the laws don't really matter, that it's the spirit that counts smacks a lot of Christianity. And my sense is that those are rabbis who defended Maimonides, like the Abarbanel and others, maybe they will less exposed to the Christian ideas. But but here's the amazing thing. In Christianity, they built a whole philosophy on this idea, and it's called Divine Condescendence. And it goes back to the church fathers. And we talked about classical commentators. Some of them use this to explain that education is like with children, that you have to start somewhere and you slowly grow... "St. A rainiest, I deserve special mention, as a rare instance of a church father who relates Divine Condescendence to an evolutionary concept of the Hebrew people in which they pass gradually as a collective, from an infantile to an adult state." They have more variations on this concept than we have. And my guess is for those scholars that like Shai Held, that are finding ideas that we had that were taken by Christians and taken in a father direction, this idea of Divine Condescendence is certainly one of them. But Maimonides either because of his biological background, or because he lived in a Muslim world, and wasn't part of replacement theology. He wasn't afraid of saying that Judaism could evolve, was able to say this. And again, it kind of reflects what we were talking about last week, and what I think what you were just saying, Rabbi, that you can believe that the understanding of the law can evolve, and still keep it. You can keep it the way it was originally observed. But as you grow, as you grow as a person, and as you grow as a nation, your understanding can evolve as far as you want. And I think that's really the theme here. And the theme of what God is telling the Jewish people as they embark on this amazing journey.
Adam Mintz 32:44
I think that's beautiful. Thank you so much for the topic. Shabbat Shalom to everybody enjoy crossing the sea. And next week we look forward to receiving the Torah, The Ten commandments with all of you well, Shabbat Shalom,
Geoffrey Stern 32:58
so soon amazing Shabbat Shalom to you all. Let's all cross the Red Sea, the Sea of Reeds and begin the journey. Thank you so much.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/375388
Listen to last week’s episode: Walk Like and Egyptian