Over three thousand years ago, the Israelites were liberated from Egypt. Ever since, at this time of year, we relive their story on Passover, the festival of freedom.
Imagine we could travel back in time and say to the great Pharaoh, “There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that one of the people alive today will survive and change the moral landscape of the world. The bad news is: it won't be your people. It will be that group of Hebrew slaves out there, building your glorious monuments, the Children of Israel.”
Nothing would sound more absurd. The Egypt of Pharaoh’s time was the greatest empire of the ancient world, brilliant in arts and sciences, formidable in war. The Israelites were a landless people - powerless and oppressed. The Egyptians believed that the Israelites were already on the verge of extinction. The first reference to Israel outside the Bible is an obituary of the Jewish people. It is inscribed on a huge slab of black granite, known as the Mernephta stele dating from the thirteenth century BCE, which stands today in the Cairo Museum. It reads “Israel is laid waste. His seed is no more.”
The story of Jewish survival is so exceptional that it challenges our imagination to the limit. In our own century, the two great powers that announced, “Israel is laid waste” – Hitler’s Third Reich and the Soviet Union - have been crushed. But the people of Israel live.
Many thinkers and social scientists have tried, and still try, to account for the survival of a people, a faith, and a heritage through three millennia of nearly impossible historical conditions. The Dalai Lama, leader of a group far removed from Judaism, who lives in exile with hundreds of thousands of Tibetan refugees, recognized that there is something unparalleled in the Jewish capacity to survive dispersion. Hence, in 1990, he invited a group of Jewish scholars to India. He felt that the Jews, experts in survival, would offer valuable advice to his own people (1).
Blaise Pascal, the great seventeenth century French thinker, mathematician, theologian, physicist, wrote:
"In certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world and this is called the Jewish people….This people is not only of remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time… For whereas the people of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out, as their historians testify, and as can easily be judged by the natural order of things over such a long spell of years. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold… My encounter with this people amazes me…(2)”
This is a moving tribute, but it does not answer the question how have the Jews survived?
Perhaps we can take our answer from the great empirical thinkers of our time, the scientists. They tell us that when a scientist seeks to ascertain the laws governing a certain phenomenon, or to discover the essential properties of an element of nature, he must undertake a series of experiments under the most varied conditions to discover those properties or laws which under all conditions are alike.
The same principle should be applied to Jewish survival. It is one of the oldest in the world, beginning its’ national history with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai over three thousand years ago. In the course of these centuries, Jews have lived under extremely varied conditions. They were dispersed across the world. They had multiple languages, absorbed a diversity of cultures. For example, Rashi lived in Christian France. Maimonides was born in Islamic Spain. Rabbi Akiva lived under Roman rule; the Talmudic sages under Babylonian power. Their societies were utterly different. All that linked them across space and time was a faith, a Torah way of life.
No other people have survived under such circumstances. If we wish to discover the essential elements making up the cause and very basis of the existence of our people and its unique strength, we must conclude that it is not its land, language, culture, racial gift or genetic endowment. The only constant single factor that has preserved our people through all its vicissitudes is the tenacious adherence to our spiritual heritage.
This is what made our people indestructible despite the onslaughts against the Jewish body and soul by thugs and monsters of every description(3).
No one has expressed this better then Rabbi Akiva, the great sage of the second century. The Talmud tells of how Rabbi Akiva taught Torah in public at a time when the Roman government under the Emperor Hadrian, prohibited such activity. Another sage, Pappus ben Judah, warned him that he was endangering his life. Rabbi Akiva replied with the following parable(4).
"A fox was once walking by the bank of a river, and saw fish darting from place to place. “What are you fleeing from?” he asked the fish. “To escape the nets of the fisherman.” “In that case,” said the fox, “come and live on dry land together with me.” “Are you the one they describe as the cleverest of animals?” the fish replied. “You are not clever but foolish. If we are in danger here in the water, which is where we live, how much more so on dry land, where we are bound to die.”
Torah is to Jewish survival, said Rabbi Akiva, as water is to fish. Yes, we are in danger, but if we were to leave Torah, which sustains our identity, to enter the dry land of the Romans, we would certainly die.
This was not merely the personal conviction of one Rabbi Akiva. It is the story of Passover itself. Leaving Egypt was only the beginning of freedom, not the end (5).
What would Passover be without its intimate link with Shavuot? What would Israelite freedom be without the revelation at Sinai? Imagine the Bible as a history of a cultural or ethnic group. We would read about the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, and how they won their freedom and were led to a land of their own. Then we would read how they merged into the wider landscape, married the Canaanites, Jebusites and the other people of the ancient Near East, and finally vanished into time like so many others. But that’s not our story: We survived because we carried the Torah with us into Israel. We are who and what we are because of a momentous faith, a faith that made us stronger then the greatest empires in history.
Ancient Egypt and Rome built great monuments to outlive the winds and sands of time. What they built still stands, and in some respects has never been surpassed. But the civilizations that gave them life are long gone. The Jews in ancient Israel became builders, too, but what they constructed were not monuments of stone. Instead they were summoned at Sinai to build a righteous world, worthy of becoming a home for the Divine presence. Its stones would be its holy deeds, mitzvot, and its mortar Torah study and compassion. By teaching the Jews that the Architect of this world is G-d, and that the builders are all who wish to become His “partners in the work of creation,” Moses turned a group of slaves into an eternal people.
1) The account is told in Roger Kamenetz' book, The Jew in the Lotus.
2) Pascal, "Pensees", translation by A.J. Krailsheimer, Penquin, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 171, 176-77.
3) See, for further analysis, a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to Academic Youth Groups, 7th of Adar, 1953. (Letters from the Rebbe volume 1, page 69-72)
4) Berakhot 61b
5) Before Pharaoh, Moses did not simply demand in the name of G-d, “Let My people go,” but, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” (Exodus 7:16) See also Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 306) that the raison d’être of the Exodus was to enter into a covenant with G-d which is our sustaining force. Hence, Shavuot, is the only festival that has no calendar date. The Torah designates it as the 50th day after Passover. Because Shavuot is the completion of Passover, the purpose of the Exodus was realized only on the day we stood at Sinai.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg is executive director of Chabad House at Stanford University and lectures regularly throughout the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit http://chabad.stanford.edu