The secret of Jewish survival

How does a single nation survive for more than six decades when it is surrounded by twenty-two hostile nations bent on its destruction?

Orthodox jews (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Orthodox jews
Blaise Pascal, French theologian and philosopher, wrote at length about the marvel of Jewish survival. Powerful kings have tried to destroy them, yet the Jews survived whereas the nations of Greece, Italy, Athens and Rome have long perished. It is said that when King Louis XIV of France asked Pascal to give him proof of G-d’s existence, he replied, “Why the Jews….”
The marvel of Jewish survival has led historians and philosophers of all stripes to wonder. Tolstoy, Churchill, Train and Adams have all written with wonder about this phenomenon. Yet, whereas the believer is quick to credit G-d with our nation’s survival, the rationalist will ask, is it not also a product of Jewish tenacity, determination and sheer stubbornness?
Think about it. It is not the survival of our bodies that evokes wonder. Our physical chain would have endured under any conditions. It is our survival of spirit, culture and identity that evokes such wonder. How did a persecuted people, displaced and disheartened, manage to survive? There are no British Philistines today nor are there Russian Moabites. You have never met a French Ammonite nor an Australian Amalekite, yet there are Russian Jews, British Jews, French Jews and Australian Jews. It is our survival as a people that evokes marvel and that, says the rationalist, is a testament to endurance.
I submit that both are correct. The rationalist and the believer. Jewish survival is a product of both.
The Torah introduces the Patriarch Isaac in curious fashion. “These are the progeny of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac.” Wondering about the apparent redundancy in the verse, the sages explained that the scoffers of the time doubted that Abraham begot Isaac and charged that the Philistine king, Abimelech, who briefly abducted Sarah, was the real father. G-d made Isaac in the spitting image of his father so all would know that Abraham was Isaac’s father. Isaac was the son of Abraham and everyone knew it because their similarities testified that Abraham begot Isaac.
Many centuries later, hassidic masters found a moralistic teaching in this verse. Abraham was a loving man; outgoing and filled with love for people and G-d. Isaac was quiet and disciplined; he worshipped G-d with reverence and awe. The verse teaches us that despite the differences in their natural dispositions, each adopted strains of the other. On occasion, Abraham adopted a posture of reverence and Isaac, one of love. “Isaac was the son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac.” You could see strains of one in the other.
The hassidic masters taught that it isn’t sufficient to serve G-d with the traits inherent to our natural disposition. To truly connect with G-d, we must be serve Him with whatever trait necessary. Sometimes G-d requires us to be courageous and we must rise to the occasion even if we are not naturally courageous. Sometimes G-d wants us to be exuberant, sometimes G-d seeks restraint. Whatever the circumstances call for, we must conjure if we want to be true servants.
The first commentary views this verse as Divine intervention to defend Abraham against his detractors. The second commentary views this verse as an indication that Abraham and Isaac routinely transcended their dispositions and limitations to serve G-d. It has been suggested that these two interpretations work hand in hand. The message is that when we determine to serve G-d with everything we have, overcoming our every limitation, G-d responds in kind and intervenes miraculously.
Returning to our earlier question, is our secret of survival Divine intervention or human resolve, the answer is both. When we resolve to serve G-d with abject devotion, rising to every occasion and giving Him everything we have, G-d responds in kind and ensures our survival miraculously.
A brief review of Jewish history will illustrate this theory. Our ancestors were delivered miraculously from Egypt, the house of bondage. Yet, they wouldn’t have been liberated if the Jewish women obeyed their husbands and stopped giving birth. The Egyptians murdered Jewish babies and rationally there was no reason to have babies that would soon be murdered. G-d saved these children miraculously, but not until Jewish women found the courage to keep having children and build the nation.
At the Reed Sea, the Jews were in a quandary; to plunge into the sea or retreat to Egypt. G-d split the sea miraculously and the Jews passed through, but not before one Jew, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, plunged into the sea and risked his life to obey G-d’s command.
In Persia, Jewish survival was in peril. Events came together in near miraculous fashion to undermine Haman and save the Jews. But not before Esther risked her life by entering the king’s chambers unbidden and Mordechai staunchly refused to bow to Haman despite the king’s explicit instructions. When Jews outdid themselves in loyalty to G-d, G-d intervened and saved us.
In Israel, G-d saved our ancestors from oppression by the Syrian Greeks, who occupied our land. Yet, this salvation occurred only because the Maccabees, a brave band of five brothers and their father, stood up to the mighty Syrian Greek army and risked their lives to defend their faith.
The survival of the nation after the fall of the second Temple, was nothing short of miraculous. They rebuilt their study halls, homes and community, but not before one brave Jew, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, risked his life to ingratiate himself with Vespasian and negotiate a promise of protection.
The bandit Chmielniki led pogroms across the Ukraine in 1648. Many Jews were massacred, yet there were miraculous stories of survival. One such story occurred to Rabbi Shabsi Cohen, who fled the Cossacks and survived. The astounding piece is that he penned his magnum opus Sifsei Kohen, a vast and incisive analysis of Jewish law under duress. That no Halachic analysis is possible today without consulting Rabbi Kohen’s works is a testament to his brilliance and courage under fire. His heroic bravery, to write even as Jews were dying all around him, was nothing short of miraculous. But it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t risen to the occasion.
My great aunt grew up in the 1920s in Soviet Russia, where it was dangerous for a Jewish child to skip school on Shabbat. Her paternal grandfather insisted that all his grandchildren observe Shabbat despite the risk. Her maternal grandfather insisted that such a risk, not mandated by Jewish law, should not be taken. All her paternal cousins remained observant, a miraculous feat in the Soviet Union. Of her maternal cousins, only her family remained observant. G-d intervened for those who rose to the occasion and transcended their limitations.
Survival Today
Jewish survival is no doubt a combination of our tenacity and miraculous intervention. It was true throughout history and it is true today. When talking to Jews living in Israel you frequently hear them tell that the miraculous in Israel is a matter of course.
In all of history, a people has never returned to reclaim its country after nineteen-hundred years. The Jews returned not just once, but twice. Once in the Persian era in 350 BCE and once in 1948. How did a rag tag army of broken Holocaust survivors win a war of independence against five trained and professional armies? How does a single nation survive for more than six decades when it is surrounded by twenty-two hostile nations bent on its destruction?
How does Israel survive when a fifth column of Palestinians live among them and according to most polls are also bent on Israel’s destruction? How does Israel survive when its neighbors to the north and south lob rockets incessantly?
There is no question that Israel’s superior army is responsible for much of this survival, but if this were the only buffer between Israel and destruction, Israel would long have disappeared. The Iron Dome caught most of the missiles headed its way, but who saved the nation from the missiles that slipped through the dome and nonetheless landed safely?
The answer is as obvious to us as it was to Pascal. It is G-d who saves the Jews. But this essay argues that G-d saves us, when we show our devotion to him even when it is uncomfortable and even when it is dangerous. Let us resolve to stimulate more miracles by devoting ourselves to Him yet again. Let us resolve to observe a mitzva we haven’t observed yet or strengthen one we are already observe.
Let us do our part and in return, let G-d do his.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]