The story of Purim, as related in the Book of Esther, gives us a clear analysis of the “Jewish problem”.
Being dispersed over 127 provinces and lands, their own still in ruins, the Jews undoubtedly differed from one another in custom, dress and language, according to the place of their dispersal, very much in the same way that Jews in different lands differ nowadays. Yet, though there were Jews who would conceal their Jewishness, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, recognised the essential qualities and characteristics of the Jews which made all of them, with or without their consent, into one people, namely, “their laws are different from those of any other people.” (Esther 3:8)
Hence, in his wicked desire to annihilate the Jews, Haman seeks to destroy “all the Jews, young and old, children and women.” Although there were in those days, too, Jews who adhered to the Torah and mitzvot, and Jews whose religious ties with their people were weak, or who sought to assimilate, none could escape the classification of belonging to that “lone people”, and every one was included in Haman’s cruel decree.
In all ages there were Hamans, yet we have outlived them, thank G–d. Wherein lies the secret of our survival?
The answer will be evident from the following illustration. When a scientist seeks to ascertain the laws governing a certain phenomenon, or to discover the essential properties of a certain element in nature, he must undertake a series of experiments under the most varied conditions in order to discover those properties or laws which under all conditions are alike. No true scientific law can be deduced from a minimum number of experiments, or from experiments under similar or only slightly varied conditions, for the results as to what is essential, what is secondary or what is unimportant would then not be conclusive.
The same principle should be applied to our people. It is one of the oldest in the world, beginning its national history with the Revelation at Mount Sinai some 3,300 years ago. In the course of these long centuries our people has lived under extremely varied conditions, in different times and different places all over the world. 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 peculiar physical or intrinsic mental characteristics, nor its tongue, manners and customs (in a wider sense), nor even its racial purity (for there were times in the early history of our people, as well as during the Middle Ages and even recent times, when whole ethnic groups and tribes have become proselytes and part of our people).
The only link which unites our dispersed and scattered people throughout its dispersion, regardless of time, is Torah and mitzvot, the Jewish way of life which has remained basically the same throughout the ages and in every place. The conclusion is clear and beyond doubt: It is Torah and mitzvot which has made our people indestructible in the face of massacres and pogroms aimed at our physical destruction, and in the face of ideological onslaughts of foreign cultures aimed at our spiritual destruction.
Purim teaches us the age-old lesson, which has been verified even most recently, to our sorrow, that no manner of assimilation, not even when it is extended over several generations, provides an escape from the Hamans and Hitlers; nor can any Jew sever his ties with his people by attempting such an escape.
On the contrary, our salvation and our existence depend precisely upon the fact that “their laws are different from those of any other people.”
Purim reminds us that the strength of our people as a whole, and of each Jew and Jewess individually, lies in our close adherence to our ancient spiritual heritage which contains the secret of harmonious life and, hence, of a healthy and happy one. All other things in our spiritual and temporal life must be free from any contradiction to the basis and essence of our existence, and must be attuned accordingly in order to make for the utmost harmony, and to add to our physical and spiritual strength, which go hand-in-hand in Jewish life.
Assimilation is not the answer
In the human organism there are common functions in which all organs of the body participate in a joint effort; and there are specific functions pertaining to individual organs. In the latter case, the individual organ must make a special effort to fulfil its particular function while the common functions are carried out much more easily.
What would happen if a particular organ surrendered its individuality and its particular function, applying its energy solely towards the common functions?
At first glance it would seem to benefit thereby in saving much effort and in the ability to increase its share in the fulfilment of the common functions of the body. Yet, needless to say, the results would be disastrous, both for the individual organ and for the organism as a whole, for the individual organ would lose its identity and essence which are predicated precisely on its ability to perform a particular function. Failure to exercise this function would, moreover, lead to its atrophy and also, eventually, complete uselessness in the fulfilment of the common functions. As for the organism as a whole, its deprivation of the particular function and the eventual loss of the organ, would be injurious to the whole body, and even fatal, if the organ in question were a vital one.
This analogy can truly be applied to the individual in society, to a minority within a state, and to a nation within the community of nations. It is certainly true in our case, both on the national level as a people and in regard to every Jew individually.
The Jewish people, of whom it has been said long ago “for you are the fewest of all peoples” is a small minority among the nations of the world, and the individual Jew is a minority in his environment; even living in the midst of his own people, for there are places, sad to say, where the Jew living Jewishly, i.e. in accord with our holy Torah and the observance of its precepts in his daily life, is in the minority.
What is the specific function of our people and of the Jew as an individual?
It is, of course, easier to ascertain the individual function of any particular organ in the body than the function of a people in the community of nations. However, in the case of the Jewish people, which is unique in its extremely varied experiences and long history, the answer is not difficult to find. By a process of simple elimination, we can easily ascertain what factors have been essential to its existence and survival, and thus determine the essential character and function of our people.
An objective, unprejudiced survey of the long history of our people will at once bring to light the fact that it was not material wealth, nor physical strength, that helped us to survive. Even during the most prosperous times under the united monarchy of King Solomon, the Jewish state and its people were materially insignificant in comparison with such contemporary world empires as Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. That it was not statehood nor homeland is clear from the fact that, for most of the time, by far, our people possessed no independent state and has lived in the diaspora. That it was not the language is likewise clear from the fact that, even in Biblical times, Aramaic began to supplant the Holy Tongue as the spoken language; parts of the Scripture and almost all of our Babylonian Talmud, the Zohar, etc., are written in that language. In the days of Saadiah and Maimonides, Arabic was the spoken language of most Jews, while later it was Yiddish and other languages. Nor was it any common secular culture that preserved our people since that changed radically from one era to another.
The one and only common factor which has been present with Jews throughout the ages in all lands and under all circumstances is the Torah and its mitzvot, which Jews have observed tenaciously in their daily life.
To be sure, there arose occasionally dissident groups that attempted to break away from true Judaism, such as the idolatrous movements during the first Temple period, the Hellenists during the second, Alexandrian assimilationists, Karaites, etc., but they have disappeared. Such dissident groups uprooted themselves from their natural soil and, far from being constructive, became the worst enemies of the Jewish people and, thus, their persecutors.
Considered without prejudice, Torah and mitzvot must be recognised as the essential purpose and essential function of our people, whether for the individual Jew, or in relation to the Jewish people’s role within humanity as a whole.
Hence the logical conclusion that the policy of imitating the other nations, far from helping to preserve the Jewish people, rather endangers its very existence, and, instead of gaining their favour, will only intensify their antagonism. In like manner, those Jews who court the favour of non-religious groups by concession and compromise in matters of Torah and mitzvot not only undermine their own existence and that of our people as a whole – for the Torah and mitzvot are our very life – but they defeat even their immediate aim, for such a policy can evoke only derision and contempt; and justifiably so, for a minor concession today leads to a major one tomorrow, and an evasion of duty towards G–d leads to an evasion of duty towards man, and who is to say where this downsliding will stop?
Earnest introspection will show that the essential factor of our existence and survival is our adherence to the Torah and the practice of its precepts. Let no one delude himself by taking the easier way out, nor be bribed by any temporary advantages and illusory gains.
The secret of our existence is in our being “a people that dwells alone” (Numbers 23:9), every one of us, man or woman, believing in the One G–d, leading a life according to the one Torah, which is eternal and unchangeable. Our “otherness”, independence of thought and conduct are not our weakness but our strength. Only in this way can we fulfil the function imposed on us by the Creator, to be to G–d a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, thereby being also a segulah (G–d’s treasure) for all humanity.
The fifth son
The Festival of Passover is inaugurated by the central theme, “When your son will ask you”, and the Haggadah is based on the commandment of the Torah, “Then you shall tell your son”.
There are various ways of asking questions and formulating the answers depending upon whether the son belongs to the category of the “Wise”, the “Wicked”, the “Simple”, or “The One Who Knows Not How to Ask”.
While the “Four Sons” differ from one another in their reaction to the Seder Service they have one thing in common: they are all present at the Seder Service. Even the so-called “Wicked” son is there, taking an active, though rebellious, interest in what is going on in Jewish life around him. This, at least, justifies the hope that some day even the “Wicked” son will become wise, and all Jewish children attending the Seder will become conscientious Torah and mitzvot observing Jews.
Unfortunately, there is, in our time of confusion and obscurity, another kind of Jewish child: the child who is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder Service; the one who has no interest whatsoever in Torah and mitzvot, laws and customs; who is not even aware of the Pesach Seder, of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent Revelation at Sinai.
This presents a grave challenge which should command our attention long before Passover and the Seder night, for no Jewish child should be forgotten and given up. We must make every effort to save that “lost” child and bring the absentee to the Seder table. Determined to do so, and driven by a deep sense of compassion and responsibility, we need have no fear of failure.
In order to remedy an undesirable situation of any kind it is necessary to attack the roots of the evil. The same is true in this case.
The regrettable truth is that the blame for the “lost generation” lies squarely on the shoulders of the parents of a bygone immigrant generation.
It was the result of an erroneous psychology and a misguided policy on the part of some immigrants arriving in a new and strange environment. Finding themselves a small minority and encountering certain difficulties, which are largely unavoidable in all cases of resettlement, some parents had the mistaken notion, which they injected also into their children, that the way to overcome these difficulties was to become quickly assimilated with the new environment by discarding the heritage of their forefathers and abandoning the Jewish way of life. Finding the ensuing process somewhat distasteful, as such a course is bound to be, and full of spiritual conflict, some parents resolved that their children be spared the conflict altogether. In order to justify their desertion and appease their injured conscience it was necessary for them to devise some rationale and they deluded themselves, and their children, by the claim that the the observance of the Torah and mitzvot did not fit in their new surroundings. They looked for, and therefore “found”, faults with the true Jewish way of life while, in their non-Jewish environment, everything seemed to them only good and attractive.
By this attitude these parents hoped to assure their children’s existence and survival in a new environment. But what kind of existence is it if everything spiritual and holy is traded for material things? What kind of survival is it if it means the sacrifice of the soul for the amenities of the body?
Moreover, in their retreat from Yiddishkeit, they turned what they thought was an “escape to freedom” into an escape to servitude, pathetically trying to imitate the non-Jewish environment, failing to see that such imitation, based on caricature and an inferiority complex, can only call forth mockery and derision, and can only offend the sensibilities of those whose respect and acceptance they are so desperately trying to win.
The same false approach to the minority problem, whereby the misguided minority seeks to ensure its existence by self-dissolution, (which essentially means suicide, or, at any rate, weakening) has dominated not only individuals, but unfortunately has been made the creed of certain groups thrown together by a set of circumstances. This gave rise to certain dissident movements on the Jewish scene which, either openly or covertly, sought to undermine the Divine Torah which gives our people its unique and distinctive character among the nations of the world. In truth, these movements, while differing from each other, have one underlying ideology in common, that of, “We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone”. (Ezekiel 20:32)
The dire consequence of this utterly false approach was that thousands upon thousands of Jews were removed from their fountain of life, from their fellow Jews and from their true faith. Deprived of spiritual life and content, there grew up children who no longer belong to the “Four Sons” of the Haggadah, not even to the category of the “Wicked” son.
Today, many Jews are the third or fourth generation of immigrants and are, halachically, in the category of a Tinok Shenishbah (a child abducted at an early age), meaning one who did not have the opportunity of a true Jewish education. Through assimilation and intermarriage they are in great danger of losing their Jewish identity. What can be done?
The way forward
The event of the Exodus from Egypt and the Festival of Passover are timely reminders, among other things, that the hope for survival, deliverance and freedom lies not in an attempt to imitate the environment but rather in unswerving loyalty to our traditions and true Jewish way of life.
Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority and lived in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, as our Sages relate, they preserved their identity and, with pride and dignity, tenaciously clung to their way of life, traditions and distinct uniqueness; precisely in this way was their existence assured, as also their true deliverance from slavery, both physical and spiritual.
It is one of the vital tasks of our time to exert all possible effort to awaken in the young generation, and also in those who are advanced in years but still immature in deeper understanding, a fuller appreciation of the true Jewish values, a full and genuine Torah-true Yiddishkeit; not of that which goes under a false label of misrepresented, compromised, or watered-down “Judaism”, whatever the trade-mark. Together with this appreciation will come the realisation that only true Yiddishkeit can guarantee the existence of the individual, of each and every Jew, at any time, in any place, and under any circumstance.
There is no room for hopelessness in Jewish life, and no Jew should ever be given up as a lost cause. Through the proper compassionate approach of loving a fellow Jew, even those of the lost generation can be brought back to the love of G–d (Ahavat-HaShem) and love of the Torah (Ahavat-HaTorah), and can not only be included in the community of the “Four Sons” but, in due course, be elevated to the rank of the “Wise” son.