In my family, we have the concept of the “Stanton shortcut.” It pertains to an unnecessarily long path that my father, my brother, or I take when going from one place to another, leading to wonderful adventures or learning opportunities – and a far longer duration of travel than any of us anticipated at the outset. We’ve taken some wonderful “shortcuts” all over the world, using many different modes of transportation, and we continue to revel in the time we wound up spending together en route.
Evidently, this is far from an original concept. A recurrent motif from the Torah is the unnecessarily long journey (both chronologically and geographically) that the Israelites took from Egypt to the Promised Land. What should have been a straightforward path along major maritime trade routes turned into a generation-long trek filled with challenges, power struggles, internal strife, and reversions to idolatry.
One of the stated reasons for taking the long way, which surfaced after the episode with the Golden calf, is for the transition from the generations that knew being enslaved to a new one that only knew freedom and had a more open mindset. Another surfaced in the earliest days of the Exodus itself and can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16). We read in Exodus 13:17,
Now when 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.’
As it turns out, topographical shortcuts can provide a shorter path toward a destination, as well as a shorter path back from it. Commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra points out that this fear was nearly realized in Numbers 14:4, when some Israelites cry out, “Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt.”
Indeed, the notion of a shortcut presupposes that a path is unidirectional. We often associate it with flights that regularly go from City A to City B or trains that go from Station A to Station B. Our modern sensibilities around transportation occlude the broader notion of journey, both spiritual and geographic, and its ample potential for progress and regress, reversion, diversion, and aversion.
Jewish tradition is built upon a more complex, pre-modern notion of travel that may well be more helpful to our post-modern existences today. Halacha, Jewish law, literally means “the way,” as in “the way of doing things.” Derech means “the path” but is often associated with “correct conduct” and kindness, as in Derech Eretz, literally “the way of the land.” The way we walk the path of life is seldom linear, direct, or simple. The long way and the hard way can often speed and simplify our journeys. It is a matter of whether we see process as progress and destination as determined from the outset.
Wander on, dear friends.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.