“Are we there yet?”
A question that causes parents, bus drivers, and tour guides to shiver in dread. Because let’s face it if the question is being asked then the answer is no. How many times have you heard this question, or asked it yourself? When miles feel like continents, and seconds feel like hours, we can’t help ourselves, our excitement, nerves, or restlessness can get the better of us. A long car ride, an uninteresting walk, a detailed and drawn-out process – each of these can feel like an eternity when we’re focused on getting where we’re going, on reaching the end result.
There are people who would tell you to focus less on the destination and more on the journey, or that it’s important to always stop and smell the roses wherever you happen to be. But our Torah portion this week, Eikev, gives a slightly different reaction to the question of “are we there yet?”
The forty years of wandering in the desert are almost at a close, as is Moses’ life. The entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ last attempt to impart wisdom to the Israelites, to remind them of their relationship with God, reinforce the divine rules to live by, and caution them against straying from the path chosen for them by God. Our portion opens with assurances from Moses: If you do all of this, if you remain faithful and follow the commandments, God will make your life easy. You will find blessing in the land which was promised to you and your ancestors. You will find your enemies easily defeated. He tells them not to worry, that God is indeed powerful and reminds the Israelites of the great and miraculous deeds that God has already done for them.
Then, in Deuteronomy 7:22, Moses says a curious thing:
אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת־הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵל מִפָּנֶיךָ מְעַט מְעָט לֹא תוּכַל
The Eternal your God will clear away the peoples before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to it quickly…
It’s rare for Moses to predict that something will happen slowly. True, he might prophesize about something that will happen at a later date, but then when it happens, it happens. It’s done. This statement to the Israelites is odd if only due to the proclamation of slow, gradual progress.
Why does Moses take this moment to tell the Israelites that their presence and power in the land will be established slowly?
Some commentators say that if the inhabitants of the land were to be cleared away quickly it would create too much of a power vacuum – inviting invasion by other foreign powers or by wild beasts. Some say sudden change would simply be a bad idea, without further interpretation. Some say it’s to show that God’s great deeds can be accomplished by ordinary means.
I see another possible reason here. Moses and the Israelites are no strangers to slow progress. True, they might have suddenly become free after setting foot on dry sand after crossing the Reed Sea, and they quickly accepted the covenant with God upon receiving the commandments by declaring “na’aseh v’nishma (we will do, and we will understand).” But the plagues didn’t happen in a day, and the tabernacle wasn’t built overnight. They’ve wandered towards a promise for forty years now, with only the occasional grumble or complaint. An entire generation has passed, an entire generation was born. Moses acknowledges that the Israelites have, indeed, been patient and yet, there is still far to go.
In this moment Moses is telling the Israelites, and us, that great change takes time.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, or how focused your worldview might be – you’d be hard pressed to find someone who says that nothing has changed in our last forty years. When we’re in it, gradual change can be hard to see, but it’s certainly there. And change is certainly coming in our future. We can fight against it, we can complain about it, we can ask if it’s over yet, but change happens, no matter what. The question is, what do we do about it?
When Moses reminded the Israelites that God works little by little, he wasn’t telling the Israelites that they could, or should, sit back and watch it happen. They had a role to play, too. When change happens for us, we could sit in the back seat asking, “are we there yet,” or we could find our place on the map and help to navigate.
We, too, work little by little – taking turns, speeding up or slowing down, looking for signs along the way. Every day that we contribute, even if we can’t see it in the moment, is a piece of a miracle. Every time we speak up, every chance we lend a hand, every second we choose to participate, the miracle grows larger. Making our world one where great deeds are accomplished by ordinary means. Making miracles into ones that rely upon and even require our input. Each of us has a picture of the destination in our mind. Each of us works to help everyone reach the promised land. We might not get there today, tomorrow, or even next week. But that doesn’t deter us. Because we’ve known since the days of Moses, great change takes time.