January 19, 2019

A Warning to Revolutionaries

Once, I was a revolutionary. I belonged to the generation of long hair and crazy ideas. We did more than invent rock music and protest an unjust war. We believed that we could create a new society, populated by new people — people freed of the prejudices and life-choking rigidities of the past. We believed that we could change the world, and bring greening to America.

America did change. But our dream went unfulfilled.

My parents, in their youth, were also revolutionaries. They left their families to build the new State of Israel. Anu banu artza livnot uli’heebanot ba: “We have come to the land,” goes the old song, “to build it, and in turn, to be built by it.” The Zionist revolution offered the dream of the New Jew — released from the poison of galut, free, strong, proud, self-reliant, embracing the best of ancient Judaism, but with backs strong and faces tanned from rigorous work on the Land. The State of Israel miraculously exists today. But where is this greater Zionist vision?

Bamidbar, the Torah’s fourth book, is about why revolutions fail. It is a warning to revolutionaries, a rebuke to those romantics who still believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free human beings from their chains. It is a response to those who foresee that, out of the apocalypse, the New Man, the New Woman, the New American, the New Jew will emerge. Here, Bamidbar offers, is the ideal case study: The people Israel freed from Egyptian slavery with signs and wonders. Those who stood in the presence of God on the quaking, flaming Sinai. The people who heard Truth from the mouth of God. And, still, they are unchanged, unrepentant, chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. Offered the gift of true freedom, they clamor for meat. God offers them the Promised Land, and all they do is scheme to