Why does G-d lead the children of Israel to the sea, rather than guiding them down the well-worn highway?
Parashat Beshalach is unique in that it begins by telling us what G-d did NOT do.
G-d did not guide them to the highway that goes through the land of the Philistines, because it was close by – G-d thought that the people, upon seeing war, might change their minds and return to Egypt. Rather, G-d led the people by a roundabout route, through the desert by the Sea of Suf. -Exodus 13: 17- 18
Rather than guiding the Jewish people quickly down the well-traveled highway to present-day Gaza, G-d chose the less obvious route, leading to an eventual entry to the Land (forty years later) over the banks of the Jordan River. The text says that the children of Israel departed Egypt “fully armed,” and yet G-d led them away from battle. Why is this? It seems that before the people even began their journey out of Egypt, G-d already knew they lacked fortitude for the challenges ahead.
Much has been said about the generation of Jewish people that participated in the exodus from Egypt. Ibn Ezra discusses at length the “slave mentality” that left a generation of liberated slaves psychologically incapable of facing direct combat with their enemies. After all, it is this generation that later believes the bad report of the ten spies, and is prohibited from entering the Land as a result of their lack of faith in G-d’s promises. Later in this very parasha, these former slaves doubt G-d’s ability to meet their most basic needs – for protection from violence, water, and food – despite repeated miracles demonstrating G-d’s power.
Maimonides argues that G-d chose an indirect route in order to toughen the people and prepare them to enter the Land. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he says, “Ease destroys bravery while trouble and concern about food create strength. This strength that the Israelites gained was the ultimate good that came out of their wanderings in the wilderness.” (3:24) This would make sense, but for the fact that this generation of Jews never had the opportunity to exercise their supposed bravery. It was their children(who did not witness the miracles of Beshalach) who entered and conquered the Land.
It seems that G-d chose this route in order to demonstrate something fundamental about the way He works through the Jewish people and through history. It is not human ingenuity or warfare that produces redemption. Indeed, the people of Israel are given their freedom without the need to lift a single sword. It is G-d who turns the seabed into dry ground, who turns bitter water sweet, who rains manna and quail from heaven, and who routs the Amalekites’ attempt at blood sport. G-d admits that this choice has a didactic purpose when he explains to Moses that, “I will win glory for myself … and the Egyptians will realize at last that I am the LORD.” (14:4)
It often strikes the reader as a shame that the generation that witnessed awe-inspiring plagues and miracles struggled so vocally with their ability to rely on G-d for basic provisions. But it is not for our own satisfaction that the Torah itemizes their every complaint. Instead, the Torah reminds us that, regardless of our current position (whether it be characterized by relative affluence or relative deprivation), we remain dependent on G-d for our every need. Even those who are unburdened by a “slave mentality” are ultimately unable to accomplish anything of significance without G-d’s direct intervention. And that ultimately, G-d is working out His plan to redeem all creation through the trials and challenges faced by the Jewish people. By continually redeeming us, G-d tells the nations of the world that He is the LORD. Our highest calling as a people is not to toughen our own hides, but to place our trust in G-d. Paradoxically, it is through our uniquely vulnerable exercise of faith that G-d demonstrates His might.