SOMETIMES, THINGS GET WORSE before they get better. Sometimes, things get worse even as they are getting better— as reality pulls in two seemingly opposing directions.
Such is the case at the end of the Torah portion of Shmot. Moses has already appeared on the scene, and is greeted as the long-awaited redeemer of Israel. He confronts Pharaoh with the miraculous signs that God has given him. But instead of alleviating his people's burden, he sees their suffering intensify. Their workload is doubled. Their taskmasters are ordered to beat them harder. For a long moment, the scent of redemption in the air stinks of disaster. "You have ruined our smell in the face of the Egyptians" (Exodus 5:21), the elders of Israel accuse Moses. In turn, Moses accuses God: 'Why have you done evil to this people?" (5:22).
According to the midrash in Shmot Rabbah, this crisis of cruel waiting lasted for only three days. But in a very real sense, it became the quintessential Jewish moment, and we learned to transform it to our advantage. As the Exodus from Egypt became a memory and the symbol of the promised future redemption ("As in the days of your Exodus from Egypt, I will do wonders for you" Micha 7:15) and the bitter exile took hold, we lived for centuries as if we were constantly within the moment when the rumor of redemption coincides with intensification of suffering. We learned to live with this paradox as if it were a natural condition. And, without idealizing Jewish powerlessness and suffering, the ability (born of necessity) to live with the promise of redemption balanced against the darkness of political and economic circumstances strengthened and deepened us as a people.
A slow-burning messianism — like the constant explosion at the heart of the sun, is the secret source of Jewish spiritual power. Zionism captured the imagination of the Jewish people in large part because of the way it combined a messianic agenda —the return to the Holy Land, the redemption from oppression —with a gritty and pragmatic engagement with the details of a harsh reality: redeeming the land dunam by dunam, swamp by swamp. In rhetoric and ideology, if not always in practice, Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion emphasized that they were creating a special and unique society, "a light unto the nations,"whose institutions would reflect Biblical ideals of social and economic justice.
Much has been written and said over the last two decades since the founding of Gush Emunim about the growing danger of false messianism amongst religious Jews in Israel. After the shocking assassination of prime minister Rabin, no one can deny this danger is real. Yet I do not think it is coincidence that the religious right has gained in strength, in boldness — and in desperation— exactly at the point in history when, in other ways, the redemptive agenda has slowly withered away.
For at least two decades, Israeli writers such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua have promoted "normalcy," the idea that the goal of Zionism should be the creation of a society in which Jews can live "like all the other nations"— unburdened by war, ideology or messianism. Good lives, simple lives. But what we can clearly see from the process that has swept over Israel during the last decade is that abandoning Zionism's redemptive hopes of creating a unique society based on Jewish ideals leads to something quite different than the good, simple lives Oz and Yehoshua evoke in their essays.
According to recently published reports, the gap between rich and poor in Israel is now second only to the United States among Western countries.'The land that Diaspora Jews contributed their quarters and dimes to redeem is now being sold off to private contractors who make huge profits selling suburban tract homes, while low-income housing is available only in slum areas. Listening to the speeches of prominent Israeli politicians, it would seem as if the true meaning of Zionism were economic success, whose fruits, within the present structure of society, concentrate undue power and resources in the hands of the wealthy elite.
We, the Jewish people, are used to hoping for, planning for, moving towards redemption. We can be patient. We can stretch three days into 2,000 years. We can talk about what redemption means, and argue about it and give it a 'secular name; we can regard redemption as a goal aspired to but never quite reached. But if we try to forget the slow-burning explosion within us? If we abandon, altogether, the redemptive agenda? The vacuum that we leave will not remain empty for long. ❑