“If you could travel back in time to 1999, you’d be struck by a remarkable air of unreality. The Cold War had ended, Communism had been defeated, capitalism had triumphed, history was over.”
So reported the Wall Street Journal in December, and what a difference a decade makes. Old enemies died, Communism was consigned – as President Reagan had predicted – to the ash heap of history (except on some US college campuses) and the former bastions of Communism – China and Russia – became uneasy but (mostly) free enterprisers, although without the trickle down benefits to the masses. At the same time, American capitalism suffered staggering blows – owing to capitalism’s great weakness (the inability to eradicate greed from human nature), the financial chicanery among the greedy, the persistence of the business cycle, and the gambling instinct of Americans financial wizards who were fueled by the knowledge that officialdom would bail out their losses – literally – to the tune of billions of dollars.
And new enemies were born, marking not the end of history but a decisive shift back to the 7th century. Arab terrorists laid low great symbols of American success and prosperity, and the dust of the World Trade Center has still not completely settled. American wars in the Middle East consumed much of the decade, and show no signs of retrenchment; American involvement may end, but the hostilities will continue – and we will be forced to re-visit such events as the “Hundred Years War (mid-14th – mid-15th centuries) or the “Thirty Years War” (17th century) to begin to understand the nature of enduring conflict.
A decade always brings change (farewell cassette tapes and answering machines). Nevertheless, what is more remarkable than the faux serenity of the 90’s (or 50’s, by the Jewish calendar) is the reality that, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same. The United States began the decade in recession and ended it in another recession – and few, understandably, remember the prosperity in between. The decade began with Iraq (by its own admission) seeking weapons of mass destruction and threatening Israel, and ends with Iran (by its own admission) doing the same. Israel began the decade with the kidnapping of three soldiers in Lebanon (whose corpses were released four years later in exchange hundreds of hardened terrorists) and ends the decade contemplating another such exchange – releasing even more bloodthirsty terrorists. A Prime Minister Netanyahu planned secret talks with the Syrians over the disposition of the Golan Heights in 1999, and again in 2009. Rockets fell on Sderot in 2000, and still fall today. Ehud Barak planned retreats as Prime Minister in 2000, and as Defense Minister in 2010. Shimon Peres held, and still holds, positions of power and leadership.
Five prime ministers served Israelis in the past decade – Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu – each struggling to maintain the status quo (and largely failing) and none imbued with new ideas or even a coherent vision to move beyond the quicksand of the “peace process” and on to a more secure footing of building, growth, and progress. Each muddled through in his/her own way, dealing with the occasional cataclysm – relentless terror, expulsion, two wars, and shortly, the Iranian threat – but with a slowly deteriorating strategic situation. If survival in a hostile neighborhood is an accomplishment, then each were accomplished but failed to achieve larger, more productive goals.
Who would not wish to roll back the political clock twenty years? In 1990, Israel controlled south Lebanon, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza – and terror consumed several dozen lives per year. By 2000, Israel had retreated from much of Gaza and parts of YESHA, and was startled by an unprecedented campaign of terror in its cities that ultimately murdered more than a thousand Jews and maimed thousands more. Israel in 2000 fled Lebanon “never to return,” until the rockets of 2006 forced Israel into a brief but disastrous war. Hezbollah’s arsenal of 10,000 rockets and missiles was neutralized, but now replaced with an arsenal of 40,000 rockets and missiles awaiting a new spark. As 2010 dawns, Lebanon is again a tinderbox and largely controlled by Hezbollah, Gaza is lost for the foreseeable future, and Judea and Samaria are frozen – for what reason and for how long are still not fully known. Terror is – momentarily and we pray longer – dormant, the result of constant vigilance, patrols and pre-emptive strikes – thus the simple (and the venal) see the quiet and call for relaxing the measures that have produced the quiet. The “peace process” has been all process, no peace. That history is, assuredly, not at all over.
Is everything the same? Certainly not. We have all aged, loved ones have left us, and new ones are born. We change – each and every one of us – although the changes can be so gradual that we don’t notice them immediately. The Torah we learn seeps into us, and, in Rabbi Akiva’s simile, slowly erodes our resistance to its ideas and values like water dripping on a stone. We become minyanaires – attending daily – and mark our day with Torah study and acts of chesed. We understand life a little more, and a little better. We become more involved in community and the world around us.
There is a similitude in finance, politics and history – but not in one’s spiritual life. A person who boasts that he/she is exactly the same spiritually in 2010 as in 2000 has essentially wasted ten years – and, sadly, is probably worse today than a decade ago. In Torah and divine service, we never stay the same – we either progress or regress. If we look at ourselves carefully and critically (but charitably) undoubtedly we have all progressed, and aspire to attaining even greater spiritual heights.
“A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth endures forever” (Kohelet 1:4). But more than the “earth” endures – so do our dreams and our quests, our desire to know more, accomplish more and be better people – better Jews, better parents and children, better employers and employees, better baalei chesed. With the blessings of life come the challenges that we confront daily, and the opportunities that come our way and that we squander at our peril. Evil is the same, although its face changes, but the internal enemy always poses a greater threat than the external ones. The world-at-large may stay the same – because human nature never changes – but the world of each individual is unique, fluid, and dynamic, as we strive to ascend to greater spiritual and personal heights, each day and each year. And we pray that very soon redemption comes to a world that desperately needs it, and through the Jewish people who must be the catalysts for good and for the manifestation of G-d’s kingdom on earth.