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It says in Shemos (13,17) “And it was that when Pharaoh sent the people, G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said: Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.”

Why is the fact that "it was near" given as the reason why the people might want to return to Egypt? We see later on in Bamidbar (14,4) that even when they were far away they nevertheless said “let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” when they heard about the giants that they had to conquer in Eretz Yisrael! Therefore, since the fact that there being near or far did not seem to make a difference to their inclination to want to return to Egypt when they saw war, why mention it as a factor?

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Isn't it a kal vechomer - if even when they were far away they considered returning to Egypt, how much more reason for concern that they would be tempted to do so when they were nearby and going back was much easier? –  Michoel Jan 13 at 10:53
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Isn't it easier to abort a mission just after leaving, than days later? So it's not the complaining that God seeks to avoid, but the actual return to Egypt. –  Monica Cellio Jan 13 at 13:36
    
Rashi says it would be easy for them to go back. Now they had the sea in between them and egypt! –  Baby Seal Jan 13 at 14:19
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2 Answers

The Ramban understands it to be explaining why they would have gone that way- it is a parenthetical statement explaining why it needs to be justified to not go that way. The Ramban reads the verse as follows:

...G-d did not lead them by the way of the Philistines, which should have been the logical choice for it is near, because G-d said...

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+1 I was thinking this the other day and you found a source! –  Baby Seal Jan 21 at 1:00
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The sefer אמרי שפר here explained in parshas Vayeira in the name of his father that when someone accompanies somebody on the start of their journey, the merit of the one accompanying influences the escortee. See this answer on a previous post for more background.

And just as the merit of a righteous person affects in a positive way the person whom he accompanies, so too the wickedness of a wicked person affects negatively the person whom he escorts. Therefore, when Yisrael went out from Egypt and Pharaoh accompanied them on their way (as the Zohar teaches), his intention was to harm them through his escorting by inclining their hearts to want to return to Egypt. But he thought that they would go by the way of the Philistines since this was the closest route, and thus since his intention was that they should go that way, if they had gone that way they would have been strongly influenced by his wickedness and would have been very much inclined to return to Egypt. Therefore, Hashem led them on a different, circuitous route in the wilderness in order that Pharaoh’s negative influence would be severely weakened since this was not the route that he had in mind.

This is what the posuk means: “And it was when Pharaoh sent the people”, that is, when he accompanied them, Hashem “did not lead them by way of the Philistines, because it was near”, and because it was near it was to this route that Pharaoh had channeled his negative influence, and therefore Hashem was concerned “lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt”. Therefore Hashem made them go around the wilderness so that Pharaoh’s negative influence was weakened, and thus even though we see later on that they still had an inclination to return, it was not so strong and so Moshe was able to stop them.

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