Sometimes, salvation is immediate and world-shattering.
A sea opens, oppressors drown.
A war is won in six short days.
102 hostages are rescued overnight from far away Entebbe.
And just like that, a world of possibilities opens wide before us. A new nation rises. Israel emerges as a victorious and powerful state. Israel’s prowess is confirmed against all odds.
A shining “after” comes to replace the grim and limiting “before.”
But most salvations aren’t like that. Most salvations take time and effort, and people don’t really know they are even happening. Not until later, when they look back and see how all the pieces came together at the end of their long road.
I think of such salvations as I look at the almond trees around my neighborhood. They blossom now, just as they did when my father, Natan Sharansky, was released from the Soviet Gulag.
His own salvation, and Soviet Jewry’s salvation, weren’t quick.
It took years and years of arrests and exiles and persecution inside the USSR, years and years of demonstrations and Solidarity Sundays and letters to congressmen outside it, for the Iron Curtain to collapse.
And it took 13 years, nine of them in prison, from the day my father officially applied for an an emigration visa to Israel until the day he woke up in a hotel in Safed, newly released and reunited with my mother, to the sight of an almond tree in bloom outside his room.
* * *
The flowers on the almond trees remind me of my father’s slow salvation. But in the biblical narrative, according to Rav Ya’akov Medan, the almond tree symbolizes not a slow but rather a particularly quick salvation: our blitz redemption from Egypt.
This redemption, argues Rabbi Medan, was particularly rushed. In the normal course of events, how long would it have taken the Egyptians to start questioning Pharaoh’s leadership? How long would it have taken the Israelites to outgrow their slave mentality and stand up for themselves? God told Moshe to accelerate these processes with the help of miracles and signs and divine violence, and cut through all the obstacles that would normally slow liberation down. It is only appropriate, writes Rav Medan, that Moshe’s staff became a tool in this rushed salvation. As we discover later in the story, Moshe’s staff was an almond branch, and almond trees rush to bloom months before the spring.
But rushing a natural process comes with a price tag. The almond tree may be quick to blossom, but its blooms are quick to wither, too. The exodus may be the kind of quick salvation we all crave in times of crisis, but its speed left the Israelites unprepared for the challenges ahead. They did not have the time to grow into their new roles, as free individuals and a new nation, before freedom was thrust upon them.
Is it any wonder that they started fretting days after the parting of the sea, and reminiscing about the comforts of slavery soon after? Is it truly so surprising that the finale of the exodus — the people’s triumphant entry into Israel — had to be pushed off to the next generation? The people who had salvation thrust upon them couldn’t bring it to its natural conclusion. They were not ready to embrace an independent life in their own land.
* * *
I look at the blooming almond trees in my street, and I crave the kind of rushed salvation they symbolize for Rabbi Medan. After 112 days of war, I don’t want to hope and pray and toil, as we slog our way to a distant victory.
I want the sea of impossible barriers to open wide before us in an instant. I want the people whom Hamas kidnapped to be home already. I want Hamas to be gone immediately. I want peace to be possible right now.
It physically hurts to know that we can’t force this wished-for speed upon reality. It hurts to know that we must claw our way to every small achievement, and resign ourselves to a slower pace.
The fact that rushed redemption exacts a price, and that sometimes it’s a price we cannot afford, doesn’t offer consolation.
But even though the great and quick salvations of our past make our own struggle seem all the slower by comparison, I still turn to them for comfort and for help.
After all, such salvations have long gifted people with hope and inspiration even as they struggled through the slower, less dramatic salvations that are more typical of human history. The exodus inspired enslaved and oppressed people throughout history, and gave them the strength to fight for years and sometimes even generations. The Six Day War inspired my father, like so many other Soviet Jews, to take the first steps towards freedom. And when the USSR placed him in the Gulag in an attempt to break his spirit, it was the memory of the IDF’s bold raid in Entebbe that bolstered my father’s fortitude, reminding him that Israel does not abandon its people. Even if sometimes, rescue takes time.
We want a salvation that will tear through reality with the swiftness of a blooming almond tree and the force of a parting sea. But even if we that’s not going to be our reality right now, the very fact that such incredible salvations took place in the past gives me succor. It reminds me that salvation is possible, that a grim “before” can become a shining “after.”
And this knowledge, in turn, helps me find the strength to face the long and winding road ahead.
May we look back one day and see that all our efforts today have come together to change history for the better. May we look back and see that our fight have ended in salvation, even if the process leading up to it was so much harder and slower than we would have wanted it to be.