Friday, January 14, 2011

journeying day and night

Another week with barely time to think, much less time to think about the parsha, but I feel bad not saying something before Shabbos.

The Torah tells us that Bnei Yisrael travelled “yomam va’layla,” day and night, as soon as they left Egypt -- they had miraculous clouds to guide them by day and a pillar of fire to guide them at night so they could keep moving. It sounds like they needed every moment of travel to get where they needed to go. Yet, the truth is that no matter how fast they ran, they could never have covered the distance they did barring the miracle of being helped by “kanfei nesharim,” "eagle's wings." The Torah tells us that Bnei Yisrael accomplished an eleven day journey in only three days! So what was the point of pushing ahead day and night? It’s like the old joke of someone running through the train thinking he’s going to get where he’s going faster – just sit down and enjoy the ride, because your legs aren’t going to make a difference. When Hashem is doing to driving or flying, moving your feet faster or slower is not going to make much difference.

The Shem m’Shmuel answers that the need for day and night travel wasn’t for the sake of getting to Kadesh Barne’a faster, but rather was for the sake of creating a sense of retzifus, of continuity. Accomplishment in Torah requires a 24x7 effort – there is no vacation and no downtime. We know this from sefiras ha’omer – missing even a day forfeits the entire count, the entire buildup and preparation from Pesach to mattan Torah. From day #1 out of Egypt Bnei Yisrael had to understand that their journey was a continuous one that allowed for no rest stops and no pause.

There is a second lesson here as well. It is easy to keep pushing ahead in one’s journey when it is day – when the destination and road are clear, when the going is easy, when one is energized. It’s much harder at night. The Torah demands of us that we push ahead in our journey even when things are not clear to us, when things are difficult, when the going is not so easy.

I think the simplest answer to the original question is that as a general principle the Torah tries to minimize the miraculous. The Ramban writes in Parshas Noach that no matter how big a boat Noach built, it still required a miracle to fit all the animals inside. Nonetheless, Noach still had to do his part and build that boat. Here too, Bnei Yisrael covered far more ground than humanly possible, yet they still had to do all they could to minimize the miracle and cover as much ground as they could through their own effort.

Particularly in this case, that independent effort perhaps served a psychological need. Bnei Yisrael essentially got a free pass from Hashem – they got out of Egypt without having to endure 400 full years of servitude, they got out with a bare minimum of zechiyos, they got out without having to really do anything. Nahama d’kisufa – a person is embarrassed by taking undeserved handouts; people want to earn their keep. Bnei Yisrael wanted to be active participants in their own exodus. A little kid who has Mommy or Daddy running alongside his bike with while s/he tries to balance between the huge training wheels still feels like s/he is riding the bike because s/he is the one pushing the peddles. Having Mommy or Daddy push the bike while s/he just sits there is just not the same thing. The push to travel day and night may not have made any difference in terms of the ground Bnei Yisrael covered, but it made a world of difference in terms of the way they felt about the journey. And this too is chasdei Hashem – not just to get us where we need to go, but to make us feel like we are the ones who did all the work and earned being there.


  1. There's also the psychological, based on the midrash that says that if you ask a person if he'd rather be released from prison today or wait until tomorrow and be released with a great reward, he'll say "Stick the reward. I want out now" every time.
    In a similar fashion, once he's out the front door of the prison he's going to keep moving as far as he can just in case the warden changes his mind.

    > they got out without having to really do anything

    Well they did circumcise themselves. That's gotta count for something.

  2. מי שרצה לזכות בכתר התורה יזהר בכל לילותיו ולא יאבד אפילו אחד מהן בשינה ואכילה ושתיה ושיחה וכיוצא בהן אלא בתלמוד תורה ודברי חכמה