The reason, we are told, is that they had to be patient despite a natural desire to reach their destination as soon as possible, for they were still an unorganised mob with a slave mentality, not yet ready for the Promised Land.
The wisdom of this counsel of patience is borne out by a further story. Had they taken the way of the land of the Philistines, they would have seen along the road a grisly reminder of a group of their fellows who had been in an impatient hurry – the tribe of Ephraim who were so anxious to get out of Egypt that they wrongly departed thirty years before the appointed time. The Philistines captured them and their bones lay there in heaps by the side of the road.
The tribe of Ephraim are known as the prototype of impatience, of those who try to “force the hour”. You have to know when to be patient.
The young musician must be patient and not be in too much of a hurry to mount the concert platform… the parent or teacher must be patient and not force children to be too old for their years… the scientist must be patient and not launch a new discovery before it is tried and tested thoroughly… the doctor must be patient and not follow a line of treatment that has not yet been properly approved… in social and political life one must choose the way of evolution, for the way of revolution can cause chaos and bloodshed.
We always had to be patient in awaiting the Messiah. We went through so much… and yet Mashi’ach did not come. The Chassidim tell of the Rimanover Rebbe who, before his death, assured his followers that he would refuse to enter Gan Eden unless the Messiah went down onto the earth. But when he died, King David began to play on his harp, and the melody was so sweet that the Rebbe was inexorably drawn to it and found himself in Paradise before realising it.
Then the Oheler Rebbe determined, “David and his harp will not beat me!” When he reached the gates of Paradise they made a bargain with him. If he would just give one sermon, the Messiah would be sent on earth the moment he finished. But what happened? He looked around him, and there they all were – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses and Aaron; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel; the prophets, the sages, the scholars; and so inspired and uplifted was he that he began speaking, and he hasn’t yet finished ….
But sometimes one has to be impatient. There are people who find fault with Israel, for example, at every turning. Of course Israel isn’t perfect, but it still is a dream come true, a hope realised. I for one have a lifelong love affair with Israel and am impatient with those who are unfair to it.
One must also be impatient when a situation is intolerable; when evil goes unchecked; when good ideas are bogged down in red tape and protocol; when assets or talents are going to waste; when to sit back and be apathetic would be irresponsible cowardice.
Those for whom Jewish survival is important must be impatient. They face, as Milton Steinberg put it, “a choice between the House of Israel continuing in its historic enterprise or undertaking to liquidate itself and shut up shop.” They have to be impatient. They have to bring in the unattached, persuade the unconvinced, teach the uneducated, shake up the indifferent, and make Judaism live again in the heart, mind and soul of every Jew.