“Avoiding the Philistines”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, G-d leads the People of Israel out of Egypt in a most dramatic manner.

It was in last week’s parasha, parashat Bo, that the Torah (Exodus 12:33,39) underscored, that not only did Pharaoh finally yield to the devastation of the plagues and allow the Hebrews to depart from Egypt, but that he actually chased them out of Egypt with such haste, that the people could not even properly prepare their food.

Yet, despite G-d’s intention to bring the people to the Promised Land, G-d does not lead the Israelites on a direct route to Canaan. Instead, Scripture informs us (Exodus 13:17): “V’loh nah’chahm Ehlokim derech eretz Plishtim, kee kah’rov hoo.” G-d did not lead them [the Israelites] by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, for G-d said, “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt!”

Instead, G-d had the people turn toward the wilderness in the direction of the Sea of Reeds, and begin a circuitous route to the land of Canaan. Rather than traveling northeast along the Mediterranean coast, G-d leads the people on a roundabout path through the Sinai desert, going east and then north. Thus, the Israelites ultimately enter the Promised Land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

The commentators question: What was the Al-mighty’s strategy in taking the roundabout route?

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) explains that G-d intended to lead the people first to Sinai and then to the Promised Land, but that He changed His plans in order to execute judgment on Pharaoh and his hosts by drowning them in the Red Sea.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) underscores that since the land of the Philistines was so near Egypt, it would make it easy for the irascible Israelites to have a change of heart, and return to the land of their enslavement. In fact, Rashi notes that even on this roundabout and circuitous route, the people cried out to G-d, saying: “Let us appoint a head and return to Egypt (Numbers 14:4). Had G-d led the people on a more direct path, they would have undoubtedly demanded to return to Egypt, since the direct route would have enabled them to make a quick return.

Rashi’s commentary begs the following question: If the people were so fearful of the Philistines and would have returned to Egypt had they been attacked, why did they not return to Egypt when they were attacked by the Amalakites (Exodus 17:8)?

The ArtScroll commentary offers a cogent response, suggesting that the Israelites did not seek to return to Egypt when attacked by Amalek because, contrary to the Philistines, the Amalekites were not fighting to protect their homeland from invasion. It appears that the Israelites assumed that the Amalekites, being the offspring of Esau, would hate them, and would do battle with them. Furthermore, by the time the Amalekites attacked Israel, the Hebrews were already too far along on their journey in the wilderness to return to Egypt.

Offering a slightly different interpretation than Rashi, the Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) explains that although the way through the land of the Philistines was more direct, G-d was concerned that the Israelites would be discouraged if they had to fight their way through hostile Philistine territory.

Other commentators see the longer route as beneficial for the Israelites, enabling the Hebrews to develop qualities that they would need to conquer and settle the Promised Land of Canaan.

Thus, the Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) suggests that one of the benefits of a delayed arrival in the Promised Land was that the people would have the opportunity during the longer journey to shed their slave mentality. Had they arrived sooner, the Israelites would not have been psychologically prepared to conquer.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) feels that G-d wanted the Hebrews to grow acclimated to hardship on the route to Canaan, preparing them for the test of conquering and settling in Canaan.

In an interesting and original interpretation, the Mincha Blulah offers a novel translation of the phrase, “kee kah’rov hoo.” Usually interpreted to mean that the land was near to them, the Mincha Blulah reads the text to mean that G-d was near the Israelites, and loved them. Because of His love for the people, G-d did not wish to risk having any of them killed in a battle with the Philistines. Consequently, He led them on a circuitous, roundabout route.

This interpretation fits in well with the Midrash that explains the phrase, “v’loh nah’chahm Eh’lo’kim, not to mean that G-d did not lead them, but rather that G-d was not comforted. Although G-d rejoiced over the Israelites who were redeemed from Egypt, G-d was not comforted for those who died without seeing deliverance.

Once again, we see the many fascinating and enriching nuances that are always to be found in the biblical texts, by the serious students of Torah.

May you be blessed.