Over 3 000 years ago, a group of Jewish slaves were liberated from Egypt. Ever since, the Jews 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 yours. It will be that group of Hebrew slaves out there, building your glorious temples, the children of Israel.”
Nothing would sound more outrageous. 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 slaves. Indeed, already in antiquity, those in power believed that the Israelites were 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, unparalleled and vast that it challenges the imagination. In our own century, the two great powers which announced, “Israel is laid waste” — Hitler’s Third Reich and the Soviet Union — have been crushed and dismantled. But the people of Israel live.
Many thinkers and social scientists have tried, and are still trying, to account for the survival of a people, a faith, and a heritage through three millennia
of nearly impossible historical conditions. Blaise Pascal, the great 17th 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…”
This is a moving tribute, but it requires explanation.
Science of survival
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 revelation at Mount
Sinai over 3 000 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, possessed a diversity of cultures. For example, Rashi (Torah Scholar) lived in Christian France. Maimonides (Sephardi Sage) was born in Islamic Spain. Rabbi Akiva lived under Roman rule; the Talmudic sages under Babylonian hegemony. Their societies were utterly different. They were as far apart as 19th century Eastern European Jewry and the twenty-first century American investment banker. All that linked them across space and time was a faith, a Torah (Five books of Moses) way of life.
No other people have survived for so long 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 the Jewish people indestructible despite the millennia of onslaughts against the Jewish body and soul by thugs and monsters of every
What Jewish history tells us is that the strength of our people as a whole, and of each individual, lies in a close commitment to our ancient spiritual heritage, the basis and essence of our existence.
The fish and fox
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.
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
What would Passover be without its intimate link with Shavout? What would Israelite freedom be without the revelation at Sinai? Imagine the Bible as a
narrative of a mere cultural or ethnic group. We would read about the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. We would read on with enthusiasm of how they won their liberty and were led to a land of their own. Then we would read about how they merge into the wider landscape, married the Canaanites, Jebusites and the
other people of the ancient Near East, and vanished into time, irrevocably.
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 proved stronger then the greatest empires in history.