Long and Short of Journeys

Posted on January 11, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

There’s a funny Israeli commercial that shows Moses and the Israelites lost in the
desert. They kvetch. They complain. They pester. Then behold! A miracle! A great ball
of fire descends earthward, and when the ashes disappear, Moses cradles this gift from
G-d. Is it Manna from heaven? No, it’s better. It’s a GPS with an arrow pointing toward
the Promised Land.

Humor aside, the video raises a serious question. If the path from Egypt to Israel –
slavery to freedom – was straightforward, why did they opt for the roundabout road
instead of the shortcut?

This week’s Torah reading, describing the action of the Exodus as it happens, tells us
that G-d sent them on the long path even though there was a shorter alternative.
Perhaps the people would reconsider when they saw war and return to Egypt. In other
words, says Rashi, if they were so quick to reach Israel, they might be just as quick to
leave Israel. Maimonides writes: “G-d wanted to accustom them to hardship, to prepare
them for the task of conquering and settling Canaan.”

In the short term, this took longer. But in the long term, it was a worthwhile investment.
Here is my favorite answer, which connects to one of the best stories in the Talmud
(Eruvin 53b). Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananyah was traveling and met a kid at an
intersection. He asked the kid which way to the city. The boy answered, “This way is
short but long, while that way is long but short.” The rabbi started on the ‘short but long’
way but hit a dead end with gardens and orchards. Forced to turn around, he asked the
boy, “Didn’t you tell me this was the short way?” The boy answered, “Didn’t I say it was
also long?”

This story teaches us that sometimes shortcuts end up taking longer because we may
hit a dead end. And that sometimes the long path is better because it’s slow and steady.
One example – ironic because it deals with roads – is that sometimes the nearest DMV
location is so backed up with lines that it’s faster if you shlep out to a farther one. I had
to do that in New Jersey.

But this advice is sage when it comes to life journeys as well.

One of the best decisions I ever made was taking a gap year after high school. I spent
the year in Israel on a program called Nativ. When I got to college I was a year older
than everyone…but also a year more mature. I was more sure of who I was, what I
wanted to study, how I wanted to spend my time. I made better use of my time in
college because of that year in Israel. The longer path was better for me, even if my
roommates called me Grandpa.

Hurdles and pitfalls faced the Jews of the Exodus beginning the march to freedom
thousands of years ago… and us today. We each face challenges and choices. There is
not enough time for everything. In our work, in our relationships, in our family, we are
constantly asking ourselves, how much time should I spend on this? Should I take the
long road or look for a shortcut?

I think the Torah and the Talmud remind us of something we know in our heads but is
difficult to do with our hands: focus on the long term as much as the short term. For the
long path is today’s investment in tomorrow.

Maybe that’s why people have two eyes: one to focus on today, the other for the future.

That’s the long and short of it.