Parashat Beshalach: Taking the long way out of the pandemic

Parashat Beshalach: Taking the long way out of the pandemic

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

As we celebrate Pesach this year, many of us reflect on where we were last year for the holiday. For some of us, we were able to add a few more people at our seder tables this year, now having been fully vaccinated. For others, gatherings were still limited to virtual ones. On the one hand, it feels like it has been a long year. But on the other hand, this past year flew by.

This week, in observance of Pesach, we read from parashat Beshalach, which describes the miraculous parting of the Sea. After Pharaoh finally decided to release the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God led the Israelites out of Egypt. The Torah tells us: “God did not lead them by 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 the way of the wilderness of the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:17-18).

It seems understandable why God led the Israelites a different way, to protect their physical safety from potential battle. But perhaps another reason God wanted them to take the long way was because the Israelites needed the time to develop the emotional and spiritual maturity post-liberation to get to the Promised Land.

In our own lives, we often want things done quickly. When we see the words “loading” on our screens, we become impatient. We have little tolerance for slow cars on highways or long lines at the grocery stores. But rushing to do some things after a life-changing experience — without giving our bodies and our hearts the opportunity to process and transition out of those experience — is not always healthy.

After the death of a loved one, our tradition teaches us to observe shivah before going back to work. After the birth of a baby, workplaces (if we are lucky), offer parental leave. Our bodies, minds and hearts need some time to process what each of these stages means before moving on to the next stage of our journey. Further, when we become impatient, we have an opportunity to work on ourselves.

As we emerge from this pandemic, like the Israelites, we are all eager to rush back to life as normal. But when we go through something as life changing as an Exodus from slavery, sometimes rushing to our next destination as quickly as possible is not always the best route. Perhaps the quickest way to a life back to normal is a slow journey of contemplation with intention. None of us would have prayed for this pandemic to happen. But it did. And now that it did, one cannot go through something like this and not be changed in some way. We think about how life will be different once we begin to emerge back to our “normal” life. Will we shake hands in the same way? Will we have the same level of trust in other people? What have we learned about ourselves? What do we need to grieve? What good things came out of this that we want to take with us post-pandemic? This process takes time and thought.

In the Talmud (Eruvin 53b), we read a story about how Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya learned a lesson from a young boy who was sitting at a crossroads. The rabbi asked the young boy, “which way should I go to get to the city?” The boy responded that one way was short and long and the other way was long and short. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya took the path described as “short and long” and was baffled that the “short” path actually turned out to be the long one. He went back to the young boy and said to him, “Didn’t you tell me that this path was shorter?” And the boy responded: “But didn’t I also tell you that it was longer?” With that, the rabbi kissed the boy on the head and said to him: “Happy are you, O Israel, for you are all exceedingly wise, from your old to your young.”

With freedom comes the desire for an immediate release of our bondage and pain, a yearning to fastidiously return to life as normal. But freedom also gives us the ability to reflect in non-constricting ways on our time during isolation, to expand the wisdom of our minds and nurture the spirits of our souls.

Sometimes the long path is indeed the shortest. “God led the people round about” — and maybe that is what God wants of us now, too.

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