Take the Long Road

As many of you know, I just returned from leading 18 teens to Israel along with our youth engagement coordinator, Jenn Reiss. On our first full day, after an amazing Israeli breakfast, we headed off to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve. As we started our hike we saw a sign with two arrows – one arrow pointed to a trail on the left and said, “Maslool Aroch.” The second pointed right and said, “Maslool Katzar.”

Maslool Aroch, the long road, or Maslool Katzar, the short road – this was the choice laid out before us. This is a choice many of face ever day of our lives, take the easy path or the hard one.

We chose the Maslool Aroch, the long road. If we had taken the short road, we would have seen beautiful flowers and wildlife. However, by taking the long road we also saw a 3000 year old sacrificial sight, walls to an ancient city, and a tree affectionately called by locals, the Pooh Bear Tree.

I, personally, am always a fan of taking the long road, and I think our Jewish tradition agrees.

This week, begins the book of Shmot, Exodus. When we last left our heroes, the portion begins, Jacob, his sons, and their households, 70 souls in all, had moved from Israel to Egypt. They stayed there for many generations and grew numerous.

Anyone who has celebrated Passover or read even a little of the Torah knows what is going to happen next… spoiler alert: it’s not great for the Jews. A new Pharaoh will rise up and try to kill us, they’ll be some plagues, some “let my people go,” crossing a sea and 40 years of wandering in the desert until… we make it back to where we started – the Land of Israel. This begs the obvious question – why were we ever in Egypt in the first place? According to the narrative there was a famine that lead our people down there following after Joseph.

But God is almighty, all knowing, surely God could have done something about the famine and saw to it that the Israelites were safe in the Land of Israel – the land that they were promised and destined to live in according to Torah. And not only did God allow the Israelites to end up in Egypt but, according to our tradition, God actually ordained it.  

In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” God’s plan included sending the Jews to Egypt for four hundred years. Why? God gave Abraham the Land of Israel and Abraham was happily settled there. Ultimately, the Jews end up back in Israel. Why the need for this 400 year sojourn in Egypt?

Here are a few theories put forward by our tradition.

One possibility is that God wanted to wait before giving the Promised Land to Israel because, as it says Genesis 15:14 “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” God promised to remove them from the land where Israel would one day live and apparently it takes some time to remove an entire nation from a land. According to the book of Joshua, once the Israelites did return to the land promised to them, the Amorites were destroyed just as God predicted.

Another reason put forth by our sages says that God did it for the glory. The 400-year sojourn in Egypt included many examples of God’s wisdom and might. Joseph’s preservation of the Israelites during a famine, Moses’ rise to leadership, and God’s great miracles such as the plagues and crossing of the Red Sea were all part of Israel’s time in Egypt. Without the sojourn in Egypt, the Israelites might never have known God’s greatness and thus lacked the faith to worship God.

One last possibility, again according to the text in Genesis, is that when the Israelites’ left Egypt, they would take with them many “great possessions.” God promised that their exit would mean great abundance and this was in fact fulfilled in Exodus, Chapter 12.

When the Israelites left Egypt following the tenth plague, they were told to ask the Egyptians for items of value for their journey. “The people of Israel . . . asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And God had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.”

I like this last reason the most, but with a slight tweak. I think the reason the Israelites needed to be in Egypt for 400 years was to gain “great possessions” – however, not material possessions as the text states but spiritual gifts. Being a stranger in a strange land, being a slave teaches you a lot. The Israelites gained empathy, humility, grit, solidarity, community, and so much more during their time in Egypt. Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote that, “the blessing of being a minority, is that a minority is compelled to think.” This is why we are commanded no less than 36 times in Torah to, “not oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We gained gifts on our spiritual journey through exile that would later serve us and the world in difficult times throughout history.

The Israelites arrived back in The Promised land over 400 years later a changed people. They were in the same physical place that they started but a completely different place as a nation.

Two weeks ago, when we began our teen Israel trip, we could have taken the Maslool Katzar, the short road in Tel Dan, but going the Maslool Aroch, the long road, gave us a chance to deepen our relationship with each other and the sacred site we were exploring. The same can be said for our entire Israel trip. We took the long road on our Israel trip – and I’m not just referring to the many hours spent on the bus.

The long road included stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting with Palestinians teens who were part of a program called, “Kids for Peace.” While meeting with the teens, they asked us to participate in an exercise that they often do with new Israeli and Palestinian participants. We drew pictures of our journey on an average day, showing the places we go and the people we meet.

Then they asked us what places or people made us feel safe and which made us feel uncomfortable. Later, the Palestinian teens shared how the Israeli military makes them feel on edge while the Israeli teens shared how they are comforted by the site of an Israeli soldier.

The long road meant going on a graffiti tour of south Tel Aviv to learn about the issues that young Israelis face on a daily basis. We saw what some call ‘street art’ depicting economic struggles, and cultural clashes between east and west, and old and new.

Taking the long road meant going out of our way to stay at a small Bedouin village, K’far Nokdim, to learn about their traditional lifestyle and of course to ride some camels! We met a Bedouin women who was mistreated by her husband after he had taken another wife. She told us how she was one of the first women in her village to begin working for herself and how she made jewelry and worked in hospitality in the hopes of giving her children a better life than she had.

What can it mean for all of us to take the Maslool Aroch, the long road with our relationship to Israel. It means to engage – to not just comment on the sideline, or blindly choose a path based on what is easy. For some it means making Aliyah, like Michael Levin of Philadelphia who was killed during the second Lebanon war. Visiting his grave with the teens, we learned about how he always dreamed of moving to Israel and fighting in the IDF as his way of engaging with his birthright, with his promised land.

For some, taking the long road means to advocate both in Israel and the US to work towards justice. People like Anat Hoffman of the Israeli Religious Action Center, working for civil rights in Israel, who will be visiting Rodeph Shalom in April.

For some, taking the long road involves learning. We have an exciting opportunity starting in just over a week’s time to learn about engaging with Israel through a new 8 week class, sponsored by the URJ and the Shalom Hartman Institute called, “iEngage.” The class will be taught by our congregant, Rick Berkman, who has spent considerable time in Israel studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute. If you are interested, check our website for more info.

In Pirkei Avot 5:23, we read, “Ben Hey Hey said: According to the effort is the reward.” He is essentially saying the famous adage that we get out what we put in. That is what taking the Maslool Aroch, long road, is all about. We know this is true when it comes to studying for tests, working hard at a job, or acquiring a new skill. The same is true for our relationship with Israel. My hope is that all of you who desire to have a deep relationship with Israel will find your way to the long road, just as our ancestors did over their 400 year sojourn in Egypt and just as our teens did over their 10 day journey.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.