reflection by Dr. Mira Neshama Niculescu
In the wonderful documentary “Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi,” a passing remark made by the famous Japanese Chef always stuck with me. Jiro had to leave his family at a very young age to work as an apprentice in a sushi restaurant. Many decades later, he credited his success to these difficult circumstances: “There was no way back. I could only move forward.”
This is a deep truth of the human psyche. When facing hardship, if there is a way out, we’ll take it. Procrastination in our studies or at work, which so many of us are familiar with, is just an everyday life illustration of that.
The Torah is very straightforward in showing us this mirror.
According to the pshat - the literal meaning of the opening verse of Parashat Beshallach, it is to avoid such a trap that when guiding them out of Egypt, God took B’nei Israel through a “sivuv,” a detour. God guided them through the desert, rather than having them walk the more logical straightforward route, “ Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt” (Shemot 13:17).
פֶּן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה
Indeed, it wasn’t long after that famous night of their leaving the houses of bondage that B’nei Israel, suddenly confronted with their vulnerability and uncertainty, and to the austerity of life in the desert, started complaining to Moshe and yearning to go back to Egypt.
So it goes in the human psyche: even if painful, a familiar place is always more enticing than an unknown one. As a consequence, the path to freedom requires the pain of home leaving.
When we go on meditation retreat, we choose this process. Once on retreat, for a few hours or for many days, we cut all the roads back to home. We do so because we know that the yearning of going backwards will come. One common defense mechanism against feeling difficult emotions is avoidance through returning to our daily occupations. We’d so much rather be swamped by work than by difficult emotions!
When we go on retreat, we agree to renounce avoiding the challenges. We decide that whatever arises, we will move forward and face what is. And we do so because we know that the promise of inner freedom that comes from such a process is true.
So we say yes to the desert.