Monday, February 23, 2004
Periodically, I announce that I'm going to start commenting on the weekly parshah (Torah section), and I do it for a couple of weeks and then fall off the wagon. (I guess it's a good thing I'm not a rabbi.) Frequently, the reason I fall off is that I haven't studied the text prior to hearing it read in synagogue on Saturday morning, which means I don't have anything to say until after that's no longer the parshah of the week.
Well, this was one of those weeks, but sitting in shul this week (actually, standing; I was gabbi, that is to say, the fellow who stands next to the reader to correct him if he - or, in our liberal Conservative synagogue, she - makes a mistake), a particular line from the parshah jumped out at me.
It's not the line you'd expect. Here it is:
Lo agarshenu mipaneycha beshanah echat pen-tihyeh ha'aretz shmamah verabah aleycha chayat hasadeh. "I will not drive them [the nations of Cana'an] out in a single year, however, lest the land become depopulated, and the wild animals become too many for you." [Exodus 23:29]
The context is a promise of the conquest of Cana'an and the displacement of its inhabitants by the invading Israelites, and Israel's obligations to destroy the vestiges of Canaanite religion rather than follow foreign gods, etc., and the blessings that will accrue to obedience.
So, why did this line strike me?
There is a common tendency to place in opposition idealistic objectives and realistic assessments of the world. With respect, for example, to the war in Iraq, there is a tendency, particularly on the Right, to divide people into believers, who, depending on your perspective, want to bring freedom and hope to a despairing region or (from the other perspective) are delusional enough to believe that the region can be made free; and the skeptics who, depending on your perspective, are cognizant of all the dangers and responsibilities of occupation or (from the other perspective) look down on both the region's people and on the capacity of idealistic Americans to change things for the better, preferring the devil they know to the uncertainty of change.
But this divide is false. Ideals without a realistic approach to bringing them to fruition *are* delusional. By the same token, realism without a core set of values degenerates easily into the cynical management of decline.
And that's why this passage struck me. God is talking about His grand plan for history, how He is going to redeem His promise to Israel. And yet His own assessment leaves room for an entirely realistic assessment of how to put that plan into practice: He's not going to wipe out the Canaanites too quickly, lest the land be taken over by wild beasts. If He can plan for such contingencies, is it really a sign of lack of faith on the part of us poor mortals to do the same?
The wild beasts have done their share of ravaging of Iraq since we came in and drove out the evil ruler of that country. They are not, I think, too many for us. But nonetheless: let us hear no more about what we could not have known, or how the morality of our cause (in which I believe) somehow invalidates discussion about how we are to achieve it. It is a bit unseemly to be more idealistic than God.