There was a group of Jewish students who were traveling through Malawi in southern Africa. This was back in the ‘90s so no smartphones, no Google maps, no GPS. Instead, they were relying on a good old-fashioned map. (Do they still print those?)
It was Friday morning and they planned to get to the town of Monkey Bay in time for Shabbat. According to their map, they had two options. They could either take a so-called major highway (i.e. paved road) that would span over 125 miles. Their second option was a smaller dirt road traversing about 75 miles. Wanting to enjoy the scenic views of Malawi’s backcountry with the added benefit of reaching their destination more quickly, giving them time to prepare before sunset. They chose the shorter road.
They were in for a major surprise. As they were traveling, suddenly, the road came to an abrupt cliff. In front of them was a river. Across the river, they could see the continuation of the road – just as depicted on the map. The only problem was – there was no bridge.
They learned that the shortest route may not be the quickest course to your endpoint. They ended up camping on the side of the road for a truly unique Shabbat in the African wilderness.
There is a Talmudic story which goes very similar:
Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: “Once a child got the better of me.”
“I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, ‘which way to the city?’ and he answered: ‘This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.’
“I took the ‘short and long’ way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So, I retraced my steps and said to the child: ‘My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?
Answered the child: “Did I not tell you that it is also long?’” (Talmud, Eruvin 53b)
We read last week the parsha of Nitzavim where it tells us that the Torah and its precepts are something that is “very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, devotes his entire book of Tanya to explain this verse. In life, he explains, something may be very near to us. But if we attempt to access it with shortcuts, it may ultimately backfire. With the proper effort and commitment, we will truly see our accomplishments.
Sometimes, taking the long route is actually the best way to make the “distant” near.
As we stand just one week away from Rosh Hashana let us recognize that teshuva (coming closer to Hashem and our true selves) and attaining our goals are within reach.
The only question is: Will we cut corners and seek short cuts?
Rabbi Berel Sasonkin is co-director with his wife, Rochel, of Chabad at Kent State University in Kent.