ויהי בשלח פרעה את העם ולא נחם אלקים דרך ארץ פלשתים כי קרוב הוא כי אמר אלקים פן ינחם העם בראתם מלחמה ושבו מצרימה.
“And it was when Pharaoh sent out the nation, and Hashem did not lead them through the land of Philistine, although it is closer, because Hashem said, ‘What if the nation will regret when they will be faced with war and they will return to Egypt.’” (Shemos 13:17)
This verse explains that although the most direct route from Egypt to Eretz Yisroel is through Philistine, Hashem took Bnei Yisroel through a much longer route in order to avoid a disastrous confrontation with the Philistines.
The Gemara says (Pesachim 116b): “Every person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt.” The word Egypt is often used as a metaphor for spiritual enslavement, and by extension, the yetzer hara is often compared to Pharaoh. Every person is required to free himself from spiritual enslavement and liberate himself from the grips of the yetzer hara. As long as a person is enslaved to his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, he is not a free person. He is essentially still in Egyptian bondage. How can he be liberated? By doing tshuva he frees himself from the shackles of the yetzer hara.
It is important to remember that even if a person did tshuva and was freed from his yetzer hara, he cannot let down his guard. As we see in this verse, even after Pharaoh sent the Jewish nation out of Egypt and they were no longer enslaved, there was still a chance that they would return to Egypt. In this week’s parsha the Torah recounts how Pharaoh pursued Bnei Yisroel in order to bring them back to Egypt. The Jewish people were terribly frightened when they saw the mighty Egyptian army coming after them so soon after they left Egypt as free men.
The same thing often happens to a person who escapes the clutches of the yetzer hara and repents with all his heart. He must still beware of the ever-lurking yetzer hara, the wicked Pharaoh, who is always looking for ways to trap him again. The yetzer hara will still be running after him, in order to bring him back to the spiritual Egypt he has just escaped from. The person may think that he has already thrown off his yetzer hara and may be surprised to see that he can still be lured back to repeat his old mistakes. He may begin to wonder: Why is Hashem allowing this to happen? I’ve already done all I could to become a better person; why does Hashem allow the yetzer hara to continue stalking me?
We can explain this with the following insight of the Baal Shem Tov zt”l on the verse in Tehillim (48:15), “He will lead us forever.” The Baal Shem Tov compares us to a young toddler who is just learning to walk. The father wants his child to practice walking, so he lets go of his hand and moves a few paces away. The child wants to reach his father, so he takes a step towards him. What does the father do? He moves further away, staying just beyond his child’s reach. It may seem to the child as if his father is distancing himself from him and leaving him on his own, but in truth all the father wants is to teach him how to walk. The father is right there to catch his child, should he fall. His arms are outstretched in a loving embrace, and the child just needs to take a few more confident steps forward in order to reach his loving father.
The same is true about the spiritual steps we take in life. The yetzer hara never tires of trying to trip us up. He runs after us like the Egyptian captors pursued Bnei Yisroel. It may seem to us as if Hashem is moving further away from us, just as we took a step to get closer to him. We may become frustrated and complain: “Why are you distancing Yourself from us every time we try to come closer to You?”
Hashem is doing this out of love, because He wants us to learn how to walk. He wants us to grow and become better people. He therefore moves one step away, forcing us to take another step higher, another step closer. And He is always there, right near us, with arms outstretched, waiting to gather us in His loving embrace.
We see that Hashem did not lead Bnei Yisroel through Philistine, even though it was a shorter route, “Because Hashem said, ‘What if the nation will regret…’” Hashem is here to help us, to prevent us from falling and being taken back to Egypt. Just as Hashem took Bnei Yisroel through a longer route in order to preclude the chance of their returning to Egypt, so too Hashem goes to every length, so to speak, to help us overcome our yetzer hara and protect us from sin. It may not always seem so, and we will find ourselves in situations that force us take another step forward against many odds, but we should always remember that our loving Father is right near us, ready to catch us if we fall, chas v’shalom.
May Hashem help every person free himself from the yetzer hara and be completely liberated from all forms of spiritual enslavement. May everyone in need of a refuah merit a full recovery, and those in need of a nechama should be fully consoled. And may we finally merit the Ultimate Redemption, which will be many times as splendid and miraculous as our redemption from Egypt.