A Way through the Wilderness

Wilderness of the Sinai

Some days ago, I wrote about and hence reminded myself of the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times.’ Since then, a ninety five year old Royal retired (finally), a member of France’s political elite with almost no practical experience overcame the wily old vixen of the Right and has the keys to the Elysée Palace and Theresa May looks like she’s going to trample the far Left under her stilettos in early June. Interesting times indeed. However, the mere fact that musical chairs is the jeu du jour in corridors of power is no guarantee that this will result in seismic societal shifts. We are the same people, waiting in the emergency rooms to see a doctor, scraping by in the British drizzle on not very much and enduring the same train strikes as we did last year. We should have learned by now that despite the optimism of the hustings, the flag-waving and supporters’ cheers – politicians always preach to the choir – political change cannot be brought about by politics alone. In Rabbi Sacks’ new book – a tough read around the book of Numbers – he reminds us that it needs human transformation, brought about by rituals, habits of the heart, and a strenuous process of education. It comes along with knowledge borne out of painful experience, preserved for future generations by acts of remembering. The journey through the wilderness is as relevant as a moral achievement now as it was then. How quickly we are inclined to forget, to dismiss history’s roadmaps as irrelevant. If we are serious about change, it calls not only for high ideals but also a way of life that translates ideals into social interactions. Good intentions alone are not enough. You cannot create a democracy simply by removing a tyrant. As Plato wrote in The Republic, democracy is often no more than the prelude to a new tyranny. You cannot arrive at freedom merely by escaping from slavery. It is won only when a nation takes upon itself the responsibilities of self-restraint, courage, and above all, patience. Without that, a journey of a few hundred miles can take forty years. Even then, it has only just begun.

The British electorate might like to bear it in mind.