When Pharaoh let the people go, G‑d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near, [and] G‑d said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and return to Egypt’”

Exodus 13:17

Going from Egypt, the quickest route to Canaan runs through Philistine territory. But at all costs, G‑d did not want the Jews to face the prospect of war with this potential enemy. G‑d therefore directed the Jews to travel a roundabout longer route to their desired destination. This pattern of sparing the Jews the rigors of natural battle continued for some time. When the Egyptians pursued them through the desert, Moses instructed them not to fear: “G‑d will battle for you, and you shall remain silent.” Shortly thereafter, when the Amalekites attacked the Jews, a contingent of Jews was dispatched to defend the nation, but their victory was entirely supernatural: “When Moses would raise his hand, Israel would prevail” (Exodus 17:11). Despite the difficulty of slavery, the Jews in Egypt had developed a certain comfort zone—the prototypical battered person syndrome—and any battle could have potentially triggered a mass return to their point of origin.

Desert life was nice, but until they battled the elements in Canaan, the Jews had proved nothing

The Jews had forty years to prepare themselves for the great war which they would inevitably need to fight once they entered the land of Canaan. This war would be a completely natural military conquest (with the exception of the fall of Jericho), which would require gumption and military acumen. Only then would the Jews truly prove their courage and resolve.

All the above is true in a spiritual sense, too. The fledgling nation which left Egypt was in its spiritual infancy, and a return to the bankrupt values of the depraved Egyptian lifestyle was a real risk. However, leading a spiritual life while surrounded by a world which revolves around the pursuit of money and materialism is a real challenge. The Zohar says, “Bread by the tip of the sword is consumed.” Maintaining spiritual integrity and purity in a society with antithetical values is indeed a battle.

At least until they had developed strength, proper ammunition and spiritual defenses, G‑d saw the need to spare the Jews the vicissitudes of spiritual war—a war which could have prompted them to return to their old habits and lifestyle.

To this end He surrounded the Jews with clouds of glory, and fed them manna, quail, and water from the Well of Miriam. No careers and no worries. With miracles abounding and all their needs met, they were in effect training themselves for the spiritual mother of all battles which awaited them in Canaan, pitting a nation’s spiritual resolve against the real world’s tendency to consume those who enter her domain.

Desert life was nice, but until they battled the elements in Canaan, the Jews had proved nothing.

Something to think about next time you feel the struggles of life starting to get you down . . .

Incidentally, the first purely natural war which the Jews fought was against the nation of Midian. The word Midian shares the same root as the Hebrew word madon, which means “quarrels.” This name is very apropos for a nation which picked a fight with the Jews who had absolutely no designs of ever harming them or conquering their land.

There are many battles we are meant to wage, but the very first one we must fight is baseless hatred and mindless bickering. Only after this battle has been successfully concluded, and we constitute a united front, can we focus our energies on doing battle with all the other insidious forces, and hope to enter the Promised Land.