At my son’s preschool, there are two ways that you can bring your children to class in the morning. You can drop them off in the carpool line through the garage or you can park and walk them to their classroom. Certainly, the carpool line is a more direct route. You don’t have to find a parking space or even get out of the car. The teachers swiftly unbuckle your child from the back seat, and this quick, simple process only takes a few minutes. By contrast, taking your child to the classroom involves finding parking, walking them through the building, dropping their lunch in their cubby, finding their teacher and classmates out on the playground where you say good bye, and walking back through the building to the car. All told, walking your child to class takes about a half hour longer than carpool line.
For my son Jeremy’s first year of preschool, I dropped him off each morning in the carpool line, but one day I walked him in to deliver a form to the office. From that day on, Jeremy refused to go through the morning carpool line and insisted that I take him to the classroom. He noticed that this extended our time together and felt more comfortable with the transition this way.
As I began to walk Jeremy to the classroom regularly, I noticed a few things gradually happen. I started to get to know his teachers better, as I would see them each day. I also became better acquainted with the other parents. We made play dates and talked about camp plans or swim lessons. Jeremy pointed out to me his art projects that hung in the classroom, and I was far more aware of what was happening at school. In Jeremy’s second year of preschool, both he and I had a better experience by choosing the indirect route.
In this week’s Torah portion, when the people left Egypt, God took them on an indirect route. Exodus recounts:
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near;
for God said, ‘Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt;’ But God led the people around, through the way of the
wilderness of the Red Sea; and the people of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.
God’s choice here is surprising. When fleeing slavery, one would want to leave as quickly as possible! (Indeed, Pharaoh and his army soon came chasing after the Israelites with his horsemen and chariots.) Why would God choose a longer escape route?
The rabbis offer many explanations. Some list practical concerns: that if the people had gone on the shorter route, the Philistines might have attacked them. Yet Rashi (an eleventh century commentator) explained that if they had gone a direct way, they would have found it too easy to turn back when they became discouraged, so God purposely lead them in a circuitous path. The Talmud states that sometimes in life, “There is a short way which is long, and a long way, which is short.”
Again and again as a parent I’ve discovered the truth of this maxim. I’ve found that the more difficult route is often the better choice. For example, making a birthday cake with one’s child is more work than buying a cake from the store, but the memory of baking together will be with the child for the rest of their lives. (I know because my mother and I made our birthday cake together each year when I was young, which is one of my fondest memories.)
This principle is true not only for our children but for us, as parents as well. One of the frustrations of parenthood is that it can slow us down and change our course. Important projects take longer than they did before kids. A graduate degree that might normally take a few years, may take a parent of young children a decade to complete. A book might take longer to write.
Or our destination may be different than we originally thought. A professional may discover that he or she prefers to be a stay at home parent, or someone who assumed s/he’d be a full time parent, may discover that s/he needs to or wants to work. Moms and dads may end up living or working in a different place than we originally envisioned. As parents, our dreams shift. On an indirect route, sometimes we can’t see the path ahead clearly. We may not know where our new road will lead. We may make mistakes or take detours along the way.
Indeed, my shift in how I dropped off my son to school mirrored a change within me to a less direct route in my own life. Before having children, I was a full-time congregational rabbi, but after having my second child, my career no longer followed a linear path as before. Although I was raised in a dual career family and assumed that I would always work, I was surprised how much I enjoyed being home with the kids, and I didn’t know what to make of those feelings. Where would my new path lead?
In reflection, the Exodus text has a few insights to share. It reminds us that our detours may not necessarily be mistakes. If unexpected turns offer new perspective, then they are important steps along the way. The Exodus text encourages us to have faith – even when we can’t see our way ahead clearly. Sometimes, God knows us better than we know ourselves.
The Exodus reminds us that we are bigger than the categories that we try to fit ourselves into. Working parent, stay at home parent, professional, – those boxes are too small to encompass the complexity and beauty of who we are. Life is far more complicated and wondrous than simple labels allow.
The Exodus reminds us that as long as we are open to learning along the path, then no matter how windy, our road will eventually lead us to liberation. Like taking Jeremy to school, what was important was not only the destination but the relationships that were built along the way. As parents, no matter how many frustrations we face, hopefully we meet some good people along the way and make memories that will last a lifetime.
I better stop writing and go pick up Jeremy from school.