Sunday, January 24, 2010


Burning One's Ships
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
few months ago a member of our congregation told me that, prior to the establishment of the State, she used to spend Passover with her family in Cairo. She would take a train from Tel Aviv and reach the capital city of Egypt within twelve hours.

How would you travel nowadays from Tel Aviv to Cairo? Which is the shortest way?
It is, without a doubt, the same way described in Exodus 13, 17 as "through the land of the Philistines".

"And it came to pass, when Pharoah let the people go, that God did not lead them the way through the land of the Philistines, because it was near; for God said: Lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt. But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea" (Exodus 13, 17-18).

That journey in the desert did not take twelve hours, but forty years. In any event, even though the journey was not supposed to have been a long one in the first place, God preferred to choose the long way (through the desert) and not the short way ("through the land of the Philistines"). Why? God feared that the nation would want to return to Egypt "when they saw war".

To enter the country via the land of the Philistines would not be an easy feat. Nor would it be an easy task to enter via the Jordan. Would the way there be free of wars?
There would also be wars across the Jordan. There would also be wars in the land of Israel…

So what was the difference then between the long and the short way?

Perhaps the answer lies in Rashi's explanation:-

"Had they travelled the straight way they would have returned (to Egypt). Now, if when He led them by a roundabout way they nevertheless said 'Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt' (Numbers 14, 4) Had they gone on a straight way certainly [they would have returned to Egypt]".

Apparently God wanted to prevent them from even wanting to return to Egypt. God knew that with any sign of trouble the easiest way in their eyes would be the way back. It is always harder to deal with new problems than to go back to one's former problems.

A story is told of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, who arrived with his army at the Phoenician coast in the 4th century BC. He very quickly understood what the outcome of this war would be. The Phoenician army was three times larger than his own and the war would be totally asymmetrical. The soldiers despaired even before the battle began.

So Alexander of Macedonia planned a brilliant strategy. He asked his men to burn the ships in which they had arrived at the Phoenician coast, then gathered them together and spoke to them: "Look how the ships are burning…just because of that we will have to win the war. There is only one way to return home, and that is by sea. And after we win the war we will go there in the only remaining way: in the Phoenicians' ships!".

Facing a new reality is a long and complicated journey. The way from which there is no going back. That is the desert path. The path chosen by God to teach that particular generation which had not yet reached maturity that sometimes the only way to face challenges is to burn your ships.