Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shmot’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
No sooner do the Israelites depart Egypt than they are confronted by a divinely ordained detour.
“And it was when Pharaoh sent out the people, and God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu (as it was near), for God said: ‘Lest the people reconsider upon seeing war, and return to Egypt.’ ”
Two sets of questions emerge as we consider this strange passage.
Textually, the sentence does not seem to flow. What does the phrase “ki karov hu (as it was near)” mean? Proximity would seem to recommend rather than discourage the choice of a path. Should the text not have said that God bypassed the way of the Philistines although it was near?
Conceptually, why is this detour necessary? God, after all, has just decimated the Egyptian empire on behalf of the Israelites. Can He not do the same to the Philistines or, at the very least, protect the Israelites from the effects of an outbreak of hostilities?
The textual difficulty presented by this passage centers around the Hebrew word ki in the phrase “ki karov hu (as it was near).” The word ki, according to the Talmud, translates variably in the Torah, dependent upon the context: “Reish Lakish said: ‘Ki serves four possible meanings – if, perhaps, however, because.’ ”
Of these four translations, only “because” fits our passage. That interpretation, however, leaves us with the basic question, why would God avoid a specific path “because it was near”?
Numerous commentaries, including Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, offer a straightforward pshat approach to this sentence which preserves the translation of ki as “because.” God avoids taking the Israelites through Philistine territory because the proximity of this path to Egypt would have encouraged and facilitated the Israelites’ retreat from battle. At the first hint of hostilities, the nation would have returned to Egypt. The “nearness” of this path was thus not a potential benefit, as we might have assumed, but a drawback.
Raising issues of syntax, both the Ramban and Rabbi Moshe Hakohen (quoted by the Ibn Ezra) refuse to accept the straightforward solution proffered by Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. The Ramban maintains that the phrase ki karov hu is to be translated as “which was near,” while Rabbi Moshe understands it to mean “although it was near.” The objection can be raised, however, that neither of these approaches translates the word ki in a fashion consistent with the list suggested by Reish Lakish. The Rashbam, for his part, explains that God’s concern for the Israelites transcended the possibility of war with the Philistines alone. The path through Philistine territory was “near” – the most direct route to the land of Canaan. The Israelites, however, were not prepared for all the battles that would face them in the conquest of the land. God, therefore, diverts them from the shortest route to Canaan and leads them on a circuitous path in order to prevent a disheartened retreat to Egypt.
In stark contrast to the above suggestions, which reflect struggle with the pshat of the text, are a series of creative Midrashic alternatives. Two such explanations are quoted by the Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot :
1. The phrase ki karov hu is not to be translated “because it was near” but, rather, “because He was near.” The Torah refers to the fact that God was “near” to the Israelites. Because of their preciousness to Him, God refuses to endanger the departing slaves by taking them along a path that could lead to war.
2. The phrase refers to the Philistines themselves, not to their territory. The Philistines were “near” to the Egyptians in that they shared common ancestry. God does not want the Israelites, upon their departure from Egypt, to encounter the Philistines because he knows that the Philistines will attack in order to uphold the honor of their relatives, the Egyptians. Numerous other approaches, including a tradition chronicling an earlier failed attempt by the tribe of Ephraim to escape Egypt through Philistine territory, can be found in Midrashic literature.
While the textual problems surrounding this passage are certainly intriguing, of greater concern are the conceptual issues. Why does God feel compelled to lead the Israelites on a circuitous route upon their departure from Egypt? Could He not have fought the battle for them or, at least, miraculously protected them from the ravages of warfare? Two possible approaches can be suggested; each carrying overarching eternal lessons:
1. God does not punish nations undeservedly.
As noted previously (see Bereishit: Noach 4, Approaches A), God includes a striking message to the patriarch Avraham in the Covenant between the Pieces. After predicting that Avraham’s descendents will be strangers in a land not their own, where they will be made to work and suffer for four hundred years, God states: “And the fourth generation will return here [to the land of Canaan] for the iniquity of the Emorites will not be complete until then.”
Do not assume, Avraham, because you and your descendents are chosen, that I relate to you alone. The legitimate rights of all nations continue to be My concern. Your fate will, therefore, be determined not only by your own merit but by the rights of others. You will not return to this land until its inhabitants have become so corrupt that they deserve to be expelled.
The very same principle may well be driving God’s decisions during the days immediately following the Exodus. God punished the Egyptians because their acts warranted such penalty. The Philistines, however, have done nothing to this point to earn divine retribution. God, therefore, will not act against them even to protect His “chosen people.” He instead leads the Israelites on a circuitous route in order to avoid the confrontation.
2. The Israelites have to learn to fight their own battles.
With the Exodus, the rules begin to change. Until now, before His people set out upon their journey towards freedom, God fought on their behalf. Now, the transition to independence requires that the Israelites must learn to fend for themselves. Even later, when the last act of the Exodus unfolds and God does intervene to complete the destruction of Egyptian might in the waters of the Reed Sea, God does not act until the Israelites take their destiny into their own hands and begin to move into the sea.
Had God waged a divine battle against the Philistines, had He even miraculously protected the Israelites from attack, the wrong message would have been transmitted. The time has come for the Israelites to begin fighting their own battles. They are ill prepared for such challenge, however, at this moment. God, therefore, moves to avoid the confrontation.
A final lesson can be gleaned if we view this episode in a larger context. The endpoints of Parshat Beshalach chronicle a striking transformation. While the parsha opens with God shielding the Israelites from the mere possibility of conflict, it closes, ironically, with the Israelites victorious in battle. The final scene of Beshalach describes the unprovoked attack upon the Israelites by the nation of Amalek and the ensuing battle from which the erstwhile slaves emerge triumphant.
The band of Israelite slaves, ready to retreat at the first hint of hostilities, has evolved, by the end of Beshalach, into a successful fighting force.
The march towards nationhood has begun in earnest.