During our (fairly) recent initial war against Iraq, we joined the Iraqi people in celebrating the downfall of Saddam Hussein. The war was considered a success; now that a despicable despot was gone Iraq could develop a genuine democracy. Amidst the euphoria however, one significant challenge remained: Forging a democracy.
Democracy was anathema to Iraq and to that part of the Middle East. While the United States could impose a military solution; our government could not impose a political solution (i.e. democracy) unilaterally. The new Iraqi leadership-along with its citizens-would need to develop a democratic tradition for itself. Due to a lengthy history of dictatorship and despotism; how could we expect Iraq instantaneously to transform itself into a democratic nation? Even if the people had the will to do so, transforming the total character of a nation would be a long term endeavor. The sobering lesson: Such monumental changes could never be accomplished overnight…
Iraq comes to mind as we read the Torah portion of B’Shalakh.
B’nai Yisrael are in the midst of a monumental transformation from a slave society to a democratic nation. In B’Shalakh we celebrate the successful (and dramatic) escape of b’nai yisrael from Egypt to the deserts of Sinai. The portion includes a moment of euphoria; the
Shira (song of exultation), which Moses, Miriam and the people sing in appreciation for their liberation. The elation conveyed in that song is so all encompassing that we annually refer to this Shabbat as Shabbat Shira; the Sabbath of the Song. We contemporaries read the portion as if we were the celebrants; standing at the foot of the Sinai desert. In the course of being swept away by the Shira, we ignore the story which follows. Once in the desert, the people receive a dose of reality: How will they now live? They begin to kvetch to the extreme; actually waxing nostalgic about those halcyon days in Egypt when food was readily accessible. Whaaat?!
After years of oppression b’nai yisrael seriously longed for the past?
The Israelites cannot honestly yearn for the days when oppression broke their backs and their spirits. What they do miss is the sense of certainty. Even as slave laborers, they knew what to expect each day; when they would work, when they would eat and even exactly when they would be beaten. Here, in the desert, uncertainty prevails. Tomorrow’s fate is unknown. The people knew little about democratic traditions and they knew just as little about independence and freedom. Such lofty values were beyond their experience and comprehension. It would require decades adjusting to independence The slave generation which burst out in song could not sustain that song beyond the moment. Freedom would be worth it; but even freedom exacted a price…
For those of us born in the United States; we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to live in a place where we can generally exercise our personal, political and religious rights without interference. Yet, freedom is a condition for which we must fight to sustain every day. We fight through our vote; we fight through speaking out against inequity and injustice; we fight by continuously looking out for ourselves and for each other. Regardless of the challenges, better that we face those obstacles in a country which cherishes freedom.
The newly liberated Israelites were not yet physically or emotionally prepared to cherish their freedoms. It would take another generation; born in freedom to shed vestiges of slavery and capitivity. Only then, would the Song of the Sea become a sustainable Song for all generations to follow…