“It came to pass when Paroh sent forth the people, that G-d did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said, “Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” (Shemot 13:17)
Hashem leads Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. He will now guide the people to the Land of Israel. Our passage explains that Hashem did not lead the people to the land of Israel by the shortest, most direct route. The most direct route would have brought the people to the Land of the Pelishtim – the Philistines. In our passage, the Torah explains Hashem’s reasoning for foregoing this more direct route and selecting a circuitous path. However, the exact meaning of this passage is disputed among the commentaries.
The above translation of the passage is based upon Rashi’s commentary. He explains that the passage indicates two considerations that influenced Hashem’s decision to select the more circuitous route. First, the route leading through the territory of the Pelishtim was more direct. Second, Hashem reasoned that when faced with war, the people might panic and attempt to return to Egypt. This second element is easily understood. However, the first factor – the directness of the route leading through the territory of the Pelishtim – does not seem to be a liability. On the contrary, the directness of the route would seem to favor its selection. Rashi explains that a direct route is more easily retraced. In contrast, a more circuitous route cannot be easily retraced. According to Rashi, these two elements are related. If Bnai Yisrael panicked when confronted with battle, the people would consider retreat back to Egypt. A direct route could easily be retraced. This option would encourage the people to surrender to their panic and return to Egypt. A more circuitous route cannot be easily retraced. Faced with war, the option to return to Egypt would be closed. Bnai Yisrael would be forced to confront their fears and go to battle; they simply would not have the option of retreat.
Nachmanides rejects Rashi’s interpretation of the passage. He raises an obvious objection: According to Rashi’s interpretation, the passage is disjointed. Hashem’s decision was based upon two related factors – the ease of retreat along the more direct route and the possibility of panic. If this is the intention of the passage, then it should group these two factors together and present both as Hashem’s considerations. The passage should read: G-d did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines because G-d said, “It was near. Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” Instead, the passage tells us that the route through the territory of the Pelishtim was more direct, and then the passage introduces Hashem’s reasoning with the phrase “because G-d said.”
Nachmanides offers an alternative translation for the passage: According to Nachmanides, the proper translation is: G-d did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near, because G-d said, “Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” The passage provides a single reason for forsaking the direct route: The people might panic when confronted by war and attempt to return to Egypt.
According to Nachmanides’ interpretation, the more direct route was not abandoned because it would facilitate retreat. The route was forsaken because it would more quickly bring the nation into conflict with the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan – the land Bnai Yisrael must conquer. Hashem wished to delay this inevitable battle. Bnai Yisrael were not prepared to face the terror of an armed conflict. Therefore, a circuitous route that would delay this inevitable conflict was preferable.
Nachmanides recognizes that his interpretation of the passage presents a problem: Bnai Yisrael did enter into battle soon after leaving Egypt. The nation was attacked by Amalek. According to Nachmanides’ interpretation of the passage, it seems that Hashem’s plan was not completely successful! Although the route selected by Hashem delayed the inevitable battle with the inhabitants of Canaan, the Land of Israel, Bnai Yisrael was not shielded from an immediate confrontation with Amalek.
Nachmanides offers an interesting response to this problem: He explains that Hashem was not concerned with the response of Bnai Yisrael to this confrontation with Amalek. Nachmanides notes a fundamental difference between Amalek and the nations of Canaan: The nations of Canaan fought Bnai Yisrael in order to protect themselves from conquest and to retain possession of their land. They responded to a threat posed by Bnai Yisrael. Their war was defensive. Amalek was not motivated by these considerations — it waged a war of aggression. Although Bnai Yisrael did not pose a threat to its security, Amalek attacked Bnai Yisrael out of hatred.
Based on this distinction, Nachmanides resolves the difficulty in his position. Hashem knew that Bnai Yisrael would fight Amalek. But, in this battle, retreat would not be a reasonable option. Bnai Yisrael would recognize the character of Amalek’s attack. They would understand that Amalek was waging a war of aggression. Retreat would not save Bnai Yisrael. Amalek would continue to pursue the nation even as it retreated.
In contrast, Bnai Yisrael might be tempted to consider retreat when confronted with the battle over the Land of Israel. In this instance, retreat would be an option. The nations of Canaan would be fighting a defensive battle. They would be unlikely to pursue Bnai Yisrael once they felt they were no longer threatened.
Of course, Rashi disagrees with this distinction. He explains that the circuitous route selected by Hashem was designed to discourage retreat when attacked by Amalek. According to Rashi, Hashem was concerned that Bnai Yisrael might panic when attacked by Amalek. In their panic, they might make the foolish decision to attempt a retreat. The circuitous route discouraged this choice.
How might Rashi respond to Nachmanides’ objection to his interpretation of the passage? According to Rashi’s interpretation, the wording of the passage is somewhat disjointed. One of the most interesting responses to this objection is offered by Gur Aryeh. He suggests that Rashi was aware of the objection posed by Nachmanides and provided a response. Gur Aryeh notes that Rashi adds to his interpretation of the passage an enigmatic statement. Rashi comments that there are numerous interpretations of the phrase “for it was near” in the midrash. Rashi does not quote any of the interpretations. Why does Rashi alert us to the existence of these interpretations?
Gur Aryeh suggests that Rashi’s reference to the midrash is a response to Nachmanides’ objection. Rashi is acknowledging that the passage’s wording is not completely consistent with his interpretation. However, Rashi is explaining that the wording is designed to accommodate an allusion to the various insights provided by the midrash.
Gur Aryeh offers an illustration that clarifies his comments. Avraham made a covenant of peace with the Pelishtim. This covenant was to extend a number of generations. According to the midrash, the phrase “for it was near” refers to this covenant. Bnai Yisrael could not enter into battle with the Pelishtim because of Avraham’s covenant. It was “too near” – too recent. The period of the covenant had not yet passed. , The passage’s odd construction provides an allusion to this and similar interpretations. The passage describes Hashem attributing his decision to two factors: One is clearly related to the insecurities of Bnai Yisrael – they may retreat when confronted by battle. According to Rashi, the other factor, “for it was near,” is an amplification of this concern. A direct route would facilitate retreat. Rashi maintains that this is the simple meaning of the passage. However, the disjointed phrasing in the passage alludes to an additional interpretation. The wording implies that an additional factor – separate and independent of Bnai Yisrael’s insecurities – influenced the selection of this route. In short, the passage is constructed so as to communicate an overt message and to allude to the additional messages suggested by the midrash.
It is important to note that there are two fundamental differences between Rashi and Nachmanides’ interpretations. First, according to Rashi, Hashem was concerned that Bnai Yisrael’s response to an attack by Amalek. He was concerned that Bnai Yisrael would panic and attempt a foolish retreat. This would be a foolish response. Amalek would not break off its attack. Even as Bnai Yisrael fled, Amalek would press the attack. Hashem selected a circuitous route in order to discourage this panicked reaction. According to Nachmanides, Hashem’s decision was not directed towards addressing the challenge posed by Amalek. It was designed to prepare the nation for its inevitable confrontation with the nations of Canaan. In this confrontation, retreat would be a practical option. Bnai Yisrael could avoid war through retreat. Hashem’s plan was designed to create an interlude between the escape from Egypt and the conquest of the land. During the interlude, the nation would mature and develop the confidence to face battle. Rashi and Nachmanides do not necessarily differ on Bnai Yisrael’s likely response to Amalek’s attack. But, they do differ on whether Hashem’s plan was designed to address this issue.
Second, according to Rashi, Hashem’s decision was an extension of the redemption from Egypt. It was designed to assure that the redemption would not falter. Hashem wished to prevent a negation of the redemption. He had redeemed Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. They were not to return. However, according to Nachmanides, Hashem’s decision was designed to prepare the nation for the conquest of the Land of Israel. In other words, the travels in the wilderness provided an interlude between the redemption from Egypt and the conquest of the Land of Israel. This interlude had a purpose. It was designed to prepare the nation for the conquest of the land. Also, it was essential that during this interlude the redemption remain intact. It was essential that the redemption not be negated by the return to Egypt. Rashi and Nachmanides differ on which aspect of this interlude dictated the selection of a circuitous route. According to Rashi, the selection of this route was designed to assure the preservation of the redemption. According to Nachmanides, the route was selected in order to facilitate the conquest of the Land of Israel. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:17.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:17.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:17.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:17.  Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal), Gur Aryeh Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:17.  Michilta, Parshat BeShalach, Chapter 1.