Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah said, “No one ever got the better of me, except for one woman, one boy and one girl.” (Talmud Bavli, Eruvim 53b)
He met the boy at a crossroads and asked him how to get to a certain town. The boy pointed to two paths and said, “This is the ‘long and short way,’ (derech arukah u-k’tzarah) and this is the ‘short and long way.’”
Wishing to arrive as quickly as possible, Rabbi Joshua chose the “short and long way” but soon discovered that though that path seemed at the outset to be the shorter route, he couldn’t actually reach the city because the path was obstructed by orchards and gardens. And so, he was forced to retrace his steps and take the other path, the “long and short way.”
This path seemed, at the outset, to be a much longer, more winding and difficult path, but ultimately it turned out to be the surer way between the two to reach his destination.
What’s the meaning of this Talmudic tale? Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liada, known as the Alter Rebbe (i.e. the “Old Rebbe”), taught in the opening pages of The Tanya (see Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s commentary Opening the Tanya, pps. 8-9) that in serving God we have to take the “long and short way” not the “short and long way” because there are no reliable spiritual shortcuts in our effort to come close to God.
Even so, the “long way” doesn’t promise us immediate spiritual elevation either because true spiritual ascent depends on the right preparation and training just as any physical feat requires training.
The Alter Rebbe taught that “the long and short way” can bring great enhancement of our mental and spiritual awareness. But he emphasized that effective spiritual ascent must start from the bottom and move up and does not come as a result of inspiration coming to us from above.
The story of “the long and short way” and the Alter Rebbe’s approach to spiritual growth is based on his understanding of a key verse in the book of Deuteronomy upon which he based The Tanya. We read the verse in this week’s Torah portion Nitzavim. Many Reform congregations read it also on the morning of Yom Kippur.
The key verse: Ki ka-rov elecha ha-davar m’od b’ficha u-vil’vav’cha la-a-soto (“The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” – Deuteronomy 30:14)
The goal of these High Holidays is to come close to God. Rebbe Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov said that our aim is to literally lose ourselves in the divine All like “a drop that has fallen into the great sea and…is one with the waters of the sea and … no longer a separate thing at all.”
It is “the long and short way” that will lead us there because the long way requires us to confront the mind that throws up obstacles such as doubt, excessive intellectualizing and the distractions of the material world (i.e. the orchards and gardens that Rabbi Joshua encountered). The short way is the way of faith that comes only after we successfully work through and around the obstacles in our way.
Only when we become aware of the deep spiritual connection we have naturally to the Creator by virtue of having been fashioned B’tzelem Elohim (“in the Divine Image”) do we discover our true selves linked by soul (i.e. n’shamah) as a reflection of God.
May the beginning of the New Year be one of transcendence and rediscovery for you and your dear ones.