The rousing address by Mr. Allawi of Iraq before a joint session of Congress comes between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), celebrated this year on Sept. 16 and 17, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on the 25th. In pondering its historicity, we are magnetized by the symbolism of its address on the calendar.
The theology of the linked holidays is to an extent counterintuitive. Although tradition holds that the events of the entire coming year are being determined in a heavenly judgment on the first day of the new year, and prayers filled with promises and resolutions are offered on Rosh Hashana, Jewish law forbids even the mention of sin. On Yom Kippur, by contrast, the abstention from food, drink, bathing and sex is punctuated by a communal orgy of breast-beating. The liturgy assays a catalog of human frailty: “…and for the sin that we committed before You by devaluing our parents and teachers …and for the sin that we committed before You with the palm of corruption…” After this is concluded, forgiveness is presumed and another workaday year is encountered.
But why not first clear the slate of past taint and then proceed to the visionary realm of the New Year’s resolution? It seems that a human spirit is not equipped to confront its failings before it has been inspired by a road map to future greatness. If I approach the new year like an entrepreneur requesting a loan, and I lay out a dazzling arabesque of achievement that my soul could craft if only given another year of life, then and only then can I face the lender’s quibbles about my past performance as a borrower.
This model strikes me as the story of this country’s current war in Iraq. We set out resolved, we knew what was the dream, we knew the general contours of the plan, and we waded hardily into the fray. Now the acid wash of reality has abraded some of the polish off our confidence. We are learning, and painfully, that we have our limits, all regrettable, many remediable. Yet had we tried to be perfectionists and hunt down every blemish and obstacle in advance, we would still now be revving up for war, with Saddam in the boudoir of the palace rather than the oubliette.
The ambient mood of Mr. Allawi’s talk was exalting. He spoke of a world divided between the forces of hope and the forces of fear. He laid out a sharp dichotomy between a government that expresses the aspirations of a free people and one that engorges itself on the power extorted by thuggery. He spoke about a people who only now are finding the voice of constructive citizenship. And he offered thanks to the heart and muscle of America, who had dreamed for his people before they had even dared.
And he ventured even to embrace the oversoul of the enterprise — the one that even we have doubted, the image of the Middle East as a region transformed by liberty. It is very far too early to project if a democratic wave in Iraq will ripple outward to its neighbors, but today the words of a fearless leader have taken the mirage of the desert, the chimera of the historical odyssey, and begun to sketch in an effigy that remarkably resembles the phoenix.
It never does to become too intoxicated in these moments; brave men and women under arms are still scrabbling to survive and to serve; men are still paying with their lives; even a fractured and vestigial collaboration of brutes can draw a great deal of blood. But always the note of the clarion calls in advance of history’s surge, always the voice of the prophet is heard to predict the great movements: it does not do to be too deaf, either.
Who was there when Isaiah promised that the end of history would see a new heaven and a new earth? A few stragglers, perhaps, some of the less employed, some of the more curious. On whatever corner of Jerusalem he stood there stands today a streetlight with automobiles whizzing by every which way; overhead, if you strain your ears, is the low rumble of a jetliner. And beyond the range of human vision, a satellite hums through space, fielding and transmitting signals that embody all of mankind’s most frivolous whims and most earnest aspirations.
Did we hear an Isaiah yesterday? If so, the statesmanship of George W. Bush, the leadership of America, has been much more than vindicated. We could be on the threshold of something epic and epochal. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the sum total of the things we overlooked, of the niggling nagging nudging negatives, will prove overwhelming.
Well, there is only one thing for it then. Rosh Hashanah has past. We blew the trumpet, we made the resolutions, we sallied forth onto the field of battle, we captured the monster. Now we just need to hunker down and stay the course, clearing up the trouble spots one by one: “…and for the sins which we committed before You with and without knowledge…”