For the first time in millennia, it may be that freedom in Egypt will not consist of yetziya, leaving. But that is far from certain. Pro-reform upheavals—in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan—whatever seeds of promise they contain, are also threatening.
Historically, for Jews, it is not strange to be helpless spectators to events that will profoundly affect our future. Whether in Spain or Russia or elsewhere, rulers came and went, each with an agenda whose decisions or path we were unable to influence. Today, Jews have a voice and some power. What, then, is our attitude toward the tumult in the Arab world?
First, there is the necessity of humility. The forecasts of experts are usually wrong, and no one knows what will happen: This Middle East disturbance was unforeseen by those who now confidently predict how it will turn out. People who yesterday could not name a single leader of the Muslim Brotherhood now pronounce on its ascendance. The world grows more ramified and complex; distrust the certainty of anyone who pronounces on the future.
Second, our aspirations must override our fear. We cannot hope for the stability of authoritarianism. It is not only contrary to our faith but to our interests. The Torah is a long, steady course in the ultimate illegitimacy of those who grab power by force.
Third, we should keep in mind the distinction made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—Jews are hopeful, but we are not optimists. Optimists are those who are certain things will work out. We are too experienced in the sadness and tragedies of the world to be optimistic. Hope is an active quality; the hopeful seek ways in which they can influence events for good. The Jewish people remain hopeful. In America, we can seek to move our government in ways that support not only Israel but the possibility of genuine democracy throughout the world.
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that our story is ancient. In a world of instantaneous response, Jews should know that historical processes cannot be ushered along too quickly. The journey from Egypt to Sinai was long and torturous, with lessons learned each step of the way. The prevalence of snap judgments about complicated issues betrays our experience and depth. Pronouncements about what can or cannot happen—Muslim nations can never be democratic; Jews will always be despised; there can never be peace—they are bromides of easy pessimism that do not accord with the marvels of Jewish and historical experience. America exists; Israel arose; Soviet Jews were freed; the Soviet Union collapsed; many Christian attitudes toward Jews have been reshaped.
Yes, we have seen the horrors, but they should not be the sole shaping forces of our vision. The world is not wanting for wonders; it is shortsighted to think the only miracles are the ones that have already happened.
Humility, values and hope—is this an original message? Of course not. None of it blinds us to the very real dangers of advanced weaponry, anti-Israel animus, anti-Semitism and the intractable fundamentalism that is the greatest threat to all of us. But remember, when Deuteronomy concludes, when the Torah ends, the Israelites are still in the wilderness. The Torah leaves us without an ending. Surely when our ancestors left Egypt they too thought it confusing and unpromising; but hope and guidance provided the model for generations.
From our earliest ancestors we do possess one secret: that unremitting effort, genuine curiosity and faith in the possibilities of a better world can work miracles.
We are promised the land, but given the journey.
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