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Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

When we approach biblical stories as myth, we no longer read the text literally but see it, instead, as the expression of a universal spiritual unfolding. Thus, the opening phrase of this parashah, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go…” (Exod. 13:17), speaks of liberation by our inner Pharaoh—the voice of fear and exclusion within. This inner Pharaoh is finally releasing the grip that has perpetuated the illusion of our separate sense of identity. In this major step on the spiritual journey, a spark of light enters into our consciousness and illuminates for us the darkness in which we had been living. Though we may be numbingly habituated to that darkness, once we perceive the spark, the tiniest flash of light, there is no turning back, try as we may.

In the biblical myth, two paths are laid in front of us: a direct path to the Promised Land of enlightenment, and a more circuitous path: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (Exod. 13:17-18). Our mystics teach that in the early stages of our spiritual journey the direct path may not be the preferred one, for it is fraught with inner “battles” that could overwhelm us if we are unprepared, causing us to abandon the journey altogether. Alternatively, this may have been a warning directed at those who, even in biblical days, were tempted to shortcut the journey by using mind-altering substances and ran the risk of not only hurting themselves physically, but also being psychologically ill-equipped to face the inner demons to which they might awaken in the process.

The way of the wilderness is the one preferred here. The Hebrew for “wilderness,” midbar, has a three-letter root that also makes up the word medaber, which means “speaking.” Perhaps the wilderness in question refers to this silent place in consciousness where one is able to hear that which is being spoken, to open up to the still small voice of our inner spiritual guide. As the Israelites begin their journey we learn that they first encamped “at the edge of the wilderness. The Eternal went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light that they might journey day and night” (Exod. 13:20-21).

It is interesting to notice the image of the two pillars that the authors adopted to represent the guiding Divine force through our spiritual trek. Why have a pillar of cloud during the day and one of fire at night? Why not just one pillar of fire for both day and night? I find an answer in the last few words of our verse: “that they might journey day and night.” For those of us who believe that the spiritual journey is solely one of increasing light, this stands as a stark warning. The spiritual path includes both moments of great light and those of great darkness. Our inner guide will remind us that in those moments of great darkness there is a pillar of light to illuminate the way; and that in moments of great light there always lies the shadow, eager to reclaim its hold.

And so we begin this remarkable process of self-transformation, of self-liberation, taking the circuitous road less traveled. Each of us is invited to partake in the journey. It is one that may take us 40 years, as it did for the Israelites in our story. Or one that may take us 40 days, as it did for Moses at Sinai. None of us knows how long our individual journey will be. But one thing is absolutely certain: we will never find out if we remain at the edge of the wilderness and never take our first step.