“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” (Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)
Upon their release from 210 years of Egyptian slavery, there can be no doubt as to what the “main thing[s]” God wanted for His Chosen People: Give them His Torah and settle them in His chosen land, then to become known as Eretz Yisrael. Thus, it is a little surprising that our Parasha opens with God’s desire not to lead them directly to His land. As such, the Passuk explains this decision:
“[God did not want to lead them through the Philistine land] because it is close […] lest the people relent when they see war and return to Egypt.” [Shemot 13: 17]
Rashi understands this to mean that the route back to Egypt would be short, and hence tempting in a retreat from the war they would have to fight with the Philistines to conquer the land; their emotional ties to Egypt, as their former home, would undoubtedly overpower their newfound sense of freedom.
However, Rashbam suggests the problem was that the route to Eretz Yisrael would be too short. Thus, when they would encounter war, they would “give head” and return to Egypt. Both Rashbam’s idea and his strange use of language is thought provoking, yet on closer inspection makes much sense.
When we become obsessed with achieving all-encompassing, life changing goals, we relinquish our emotional ties to our present lives. And yet, in a frenzied attempt to reach our desired destination as soon as possible, we take a great risk. Because as soon as we hit a challenge – for no meaningful revolutions are ever free of challenge – we will inevitably begin to question the entire intellectual basis of our endeavours: “Is this really worth it? Perhaps I was too hasty before…” And so, before we know it, we’re back to square one, still unhappy and yet this time without an exit plan.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the Rashbam: Had we headed straight for Eretz Yisrael, we would have quickly encountered war and thus concluded that the logical next step would be to go back to Egypt. After all, if Eretz Yisrael was such a good idea, wouldn’t acquiring the land have been easier…?
And so, to borrow a phrase from the Alter Rebbe’s introduction to Tanya, God led us on the “longer shorter way”; a quiet, longer trek through the desert would allow for the love of Torah and Eretz Yisrael to sink in, and would have the practical result of getting us into the land much faster than had we gone the “shorter” way, through battle with the Philistines.
In many ways, this is an idea reflected in our contemporary experience of Tu Bishvat: Outside of a Biblical, agricultural society nothing of note happens, but it remains on our calendars. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to take the time to notice that nothing is happening. It seems that this apparent lack of change that carries with it a profound spiritual message: If we are to develop our spiritual personalities, we cannot, and must not, change overnight. Rather, the road to success is long and, for the most part, quiet. We must take the “longer shorter way”, all the while remembering where we are heading. Indeed, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.