From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
What is the biggest miracle of our generation? The fall of Communism? The electric-powered car? The Internet?
Surely for us Jews, indisputably the greatest miracle of all must be that after the Holocaust the Jewish people picked themselves up and rebuilt Jewish life, Jewish communities, and, especially, the Jewish Homeland. Is there anything more extraordinary than that Jews who were singled out for extermination because of their faith should nonetheless want to embrace that same faith and still be Jewish?
This parashah of Devarim always coincides with Shabbos Chazon, the Shabbos before Tishah B’Av, our National Day of Mourning. On that day, we remember the destruction of both our Temples and pray for Jerusalem to be restored to all her former glory.
In Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, which we read on Tishah B’Av, there is a verse (3:22) that reads, “Hashem’s kindness surely has not ended, nor are His mercies exhausted.” Rashi offers an alternative interpretation. Not only that His kindness had not ended, but that it is by Hashem’s kindness that we have not come to an end. That He took out His wrath on the wood and stones of the Temple structure. True, His House was destroyed, but His People survived. Despite all the destruction, the nation of Israel lives. So this is an appropriate time to reflect on Jewish survival. After all the suffering and dispersions, notwithstanding the Holocausts that have decimated us through the ages, how did we survive? How do we survive? And, most importantly, how will we survive?
Of course, the simple answer is that G‑d will never allow us to disappear. We live by the ongoing miracles of Divine intervention. But in the face of the demise of all the great ancient civilizations and empires—Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Persia, and, more recently, the Third Reich, what is the unique secret of Jewish survival?
Let us take a quick tour of history to see if we can put our finger on the most important ingredient in our unbelievable tenacity of spirit. Some people might say it is our national homeland that has been the one key element in our continuity. Indeed, Israel is our eternal homeland and we pray for the Return to Zion three times a day and more.
It is central to everything we believe in; it is our heart and soul. It unites us wherever we are and wherever we have been. It is in our dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
But while we will never relinquish our eternal claim to it, the reality is that we have been away from our homeland longer than we’ve been in it. The fact of the matter is that, even today, there are more Jews scattered around the world than there are in Israel. So, as uncompromisingly committed as we are to our homeland today and as critical as it is to our global stature and security, geography alone could not have been the main factor in our survival throughout history.
Is it perhaps a common language? Indeed, Hebrew is our national language and is still the language of our prayer book. But are there not people reading these lines who could not read them if they were in Hebrew? Certainly the vast majority of Jews today do not speak Hebrew, and I shudder to estimate the percentage of intelligent Jews who are Jewishly illiterate. Throughout history we had a variety of vernaculars. Aramaic, Greek, and even Arabic were, at one time, the most popular languages in Jewish communities of old. In more recent generations, Yiddish or Ladino, as English today, have been the preferred vehicles of communication for most Jews. The fact is that we simply cannot claim a common language to be the overwhelming factor in our continued uninterrupted existence.
How about culture? Well, have you ever tried offering a Sephardic Jew gefilte fish? Or an Ashkenazi Jew couscous? Food and music are cornerstones of any culture. In both, it will vary markedly between East and West. A regular shulgoer from Golders Green will probably be totally lost at a shul service in Singapore. And vice versa. To the Ashkenazi Jew, Sephardic music sounds Arabic; to the Sephardic Jew, Ashkenazi music sounds more European than Jewish! Honestly speaking, we actually do not have one common culture. We have adapted many nuances of style in food, music, and dress from our host societies. Different environments have influenced us differently.
So if we are open and objective, we will come to the certain conclusion that the one and only feature absolutely common to all our people all the time, the uniquely unifying entity that has gone beyond borders, across continents, cultures, languages, and lifestyle has been . . . the Torah! Whether Israel or Babylon, Minsk or Madrid, Sydney or San Francisco, Johannesburg or Jerusalem, the Jewish Way of Life as enshrined in our holy Torah and its commandments has been the single most important element in keeping the Jewish spirit alive and vibrant.
And not some vague, sentimental sense of “Yiddishkeit” either, but a clearly defined value system that has been transmitted faithfully down the generations wherever we have lived.
The clearest proof of this idea is the fact that where there has been an abandonment of the traditions of Torah, assimilation has followed almost immediately—and with tragic consequences. Those pockets of Jews have simply not survived.
Of course, G‑d is the ultimate miracle-maker of Jewish survival. But there’s no magic at work here. G‑d has given us the secret. We hold His key in our hands. Just being Jewish by birth does not guarantee survival of any kind. Only where there has been a concrete commitment to the study of Torah, to teaching it to our children, and to the fulfillment of its eternal practices, have we seen this miracle happen.
May our dedication to Torah grow so that Jewish survival and the flourishing of Jewish life may be assured forever. Please G‑d, our prayers for the rebuilding of Zion and the wholeness of our land and our people will soon be answered. Amen. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.