As Jews the world over observe Passover, in celebration of an exodus from tyranny and the birth of a great nation, we find ourselves fighting furiously for freedom on distant shores. There is much inspiration to be gleaned from that tale of yore, not least because that oppression-and-redemption cycle is clearly built into all of Jewish history — most recently in their climb from the ashes of Auschwitz in 1945 to the independence of Israel in 1948.
But it occurs to me that there is a much more immediate and specific lesson that we must internalize in this season. It is an insight into national conduct that is prerequisite in the process of securing freedom. Let’s review the story. For two hundred and ten years the descendants of Jacob had been residing in Egypt, with their rights of citizenship being gradually eroded, until finally they were conscripted into slave labor. (According to the tradition, that condition existed for eighty-six years.)
There was a man named Moses who had never lived among his fellow Jews. He spent his younger years, ironically, in the palace of the Pharaoh, as the adopted son of the monarch’s daughter. His middle years were spent in other countries, as a fugitive from Egyptian justice. At age eighty he receives a prophecy to approach the Jews, fire them up with the prospect of imminent rescue, and then initiate a negotiation with Pharaoh to allow the Jews freedom of religion and some flexibility of movement.
He is explicitly warned in the prophecy (Exodus 3:19-20) that the Egyptian government will resist very strongly and it will take a long drawn-out process to succeed. When he returns to Egypt to begin this program, the Jews quickly decide to back him, but his visit to Pharaoh is disastrous. The king proclaims a new decree that in addition to their current bricklaying work, the slaves will be responsible for manufacturing the bricks as well. At this point, Moses goes back to God and complains: “Why did you make things worse for this nation and for what purpose did You send me?” (ibid 5:22)
Think about it. He had been told that it would be a tedious, laborious process. He knew to expect rejection and obstruction. Yet, after going into this with his eyes open, he returns to gripe bitterly, in tones that suggest shock at the outcome. How is this reconciled? The explanation, I believe, is clear enough. Sure, he understood that it would be a long, staged process and he had geared up to persevere patiently. What he had not anticipated, what rocked his world, was the idea that things would actually get worse. Slowly get better, yes. But get worse before it gets better? No way! He didn’t sign up for that.
This is the exact situation of our nation at this exact moment in time. We entered Iraq understanding, to varying degrees, that eliminating Saddam Hussein and fashioning a moderate democratic regime would have a plethora of positive consequences. It would nudge that region away from turbulence and toward tranquility, which in turn would dissuade both the citizenry and the potentates from exporting terror to our shores. We were prepared by President Bush for a “long haul” and by Secretary Rumsfeld for a “long slog.”
The three years have not worn us down. The tragic deaths of our brothers and sisters who wear the uniform have not worn us down. Brutal images of beheading innocent hostages have not worn us down. We can handle long.
What is in danger of wearing us down is the recent sense that things may be deteriorating. This strategy of bombing mosques and shrines is designed to exacerbate tribal divides. Our soldiers cannot throw a thick enough blanket over a country to prevent this from occurring. And if the Iraqi man-in-the-street gets angrier now than he was last year and the year before, this is a major setback, a significant backslide.
Even Moses, armed with a prophecy for eventual guaranteed victory, found this experience disconcerting. And sure enough, the AP poll has the President’s support down to 36 percent because, as one independent voter it quotes notes, people think “he is in over his head in Iraq.” Perhaps we can use this Passover season to remind ourselves that this is how life works, even in prophetic and miraculous moments. It gets worse before it gets better.
But the good guys, the stubborn, valiant, indefatigable vanguard of freedom, always win in the end.