This is the question Pharaoh's courtiers obviously have asked themselves before the start of the action in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). They are faced with an escalating disruption in their nation. Eight plagues have already wreaked havoc and destruction upon Egypt. The slaves upon whom much of Egypt’s economy relies are simply becoming more trouble than they are worth.
So the advisors recommend to Pharoah: “How long shall this be a snare for us?" You can almost hear their voice rising in uncharacteristic challenge and despair when they say, “Teidah ki avda mitzrayim? Don’t you know that we are already lost?”(Exodus 10:7).
We know, of course, that Pharoah does not listen. And we also know the tragic results of the next two plagues that take the lives of the first born sons of both the poor and the powerful of Egypt.
I could not help thinking of this passage as I listened to the Senate debate the non-binding resolution asking the president not to send more troops into Iraq. Here were thoughtful men, speaking respectfully from both sides of the aisle, who clearly disliked having to tell their commander-in-chief that he was going forward with a plan that they, and many military advisors, felt was both foolhardy and dangerous. They spoke in humble tones about how they had reneged on their constitutional responsibility of oversight by not intervening sooner to ensure a better outcome in this totally mishandled war.
I was thinking of our Torah portion when I watched Senator James Webb give the Democratic State of the Union rebuttal. Though newly elected, Webb is far from a novice. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he served as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He was a boy when his own father was mobilized to serve in Europe. Perhaps equally important, unlike most of our policy makers, he currently has a son stationed in Iraq as a Marine infantryman.
He knows how important it is to support the troops. He knows the importance and value of making sacrifices for one’s country. He also knows the sacred responsibility of making responsible decisions because of the high sacrifice being offered, the lives of our first, and second born, sons and daughters.
We face many clear and present dangers in our continued involvement in Iraq. Listening to the Senators, it was also clear that no one really knows how to successfully resolve the dangers Iraq presents. But there were two things the Senators seemed to agree on: First, that we cannot just cut and run, for that will be worse. Second, we must change tactics not only militarily but also diplomatically to re-engage the rest of the world, for this is not a problem we can solve on our own.
Last week, we read in the Torah about the dangers of a leader who lacks humility, one who thinks he knows better than anyone else. This is a trait Pharoah so greatly exudes, which will drive him, even after the debacle of the deaths of the firstborn in the 10th plague, to lead his elite corps of charioteers to death in the Red Sea, as we will read in the Torah next week.
The Senate is asking President Bush not to make the same mistake Pharoah did in refusing to listen to those whose views differ from his own.
The men and women in any military, and their families, know that they may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for the good of their nation. But it must be for the good of their nation and not out of the hardhearted hubris of its leader.
I hope President Bush will listen to the words of the men and women of the United States Senate, who have constitutional oversight over the war effort as part of the checks and balances process that makes our democracy so strong. I hope the president will listen, for the men and women who serve under him, and all of us, deserve that of him as our commander-in-chief.