I’m beginning to believe that no one really knows for sure how or why things happen, and all that all we can do is make our best guesses. Particularly when it comes to making predictions.
The theory of punctuated equilibrium holds that in evolution, or in organizational change, things kind of stay even for a while, progressing a little and evolving a little, until WHAM, something major happens and causes radical change.
Think about computers revolutionizing car production, the internet destroying newspapers, or vaccines increasing life expectancies. Think about the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. Think about a comet eradicating dinosaurs. Think about a chance encounter that changed your life forever. Sometimes, things cause fundamental realignments in the blink of an eye… and you might have no idea that they’re coming.
In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, the Jewish people have a similar experience. At the foot of Mount Sinai, with The Ten Commandments freshly delivered and Moses having just read the children of Israel the sefer ha’brit, “the book of the covenant,” the Jewish people famously call out in one voice the following two words:
Na’aseh V’Nishma: We will do and we will hear.
It is a curious choice of words. Commentators tell us that the people were united in purpose, speaking as one, accepting the commandments, laws, and ordinances given by God and Moshe without reservation and without qualification.
This was a realigning moment for the Jewish people. After leaving slavery and experiencing redemption, at Sinai, in the aftermath of the revelation, they proclaimed their new identity. Whether or not they were compelled to accept God’s terms because of faith or fear is a discussion for another day, but the fact remains that with these two words, a new nation was born, and a new religion was born as well. They were no longer Hebrews, nor were they slaves, for from this moment forward they were Jews. The terms and mitzvot that God outlined at Sinai changed the Jewish people forever, serving as a contract that has been binding for over three thousand years.
This week, the world has been confronted with astounding images, first from Tunisia, and then from Egypt, as mass protests have erupted again the ruling regimes. After decades of oppressive rule, in a matter of days the protests in both countries have escalated beyond anyone’s imagination. In Tunisia, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was unceremoniously removed from power in a bloodless coup, while in Egypt, the world waits with baited breath as the people take to the street against the thirty-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.
Real change happens suddenly and dramatically, and the fact remains that events like those happening in North Africa this week were foreseen by no one. I take reassurance in knowing that at the end of the day, ben Ali fell from grace and Mubarak’s days might be numbered precisely because they governed through fear and oppression. If time has proven anything, it’s that societies can’t function without the consent of the governed; Tunisians and Egyptians have had enough.
As the Jewish people, we’re lucky- we accepted the terms of our relationship with God a long time ago. We might kvetch about them, bend the rules a little bit, break them from time to time, but at the end of the day we’re going to live within the parameters set forth at Sinai. It’s proven to be a pretty stable relationship.
Here’s to another three thousand years.