In 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, there were some rabbis who publicly made the claim that the pending war would be “a new Holocaust in punishment for the abandonment of religion and desecration of Shabbat in Israel.”

What follows was inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, response to this claim. The talk was given at a Chasidic gathering on the 5th of Nissan, 5750 (March 31, 1990).

There’s a powerful line in Isaiah where G‑d is quoted as saying: “This people I formed for Myself; they will recite My praise.”1

Scriptural commentators2 see this statement about the Jewish people as two separate phrases, the former one not dependent on the latter. In fact, G‑d is saying here that the uniqueness of the Jewish people does not depend on their recital of His praise. Their being not (just) their doing endears them to Him.

But how does that jibe with the Mishnaic statement that articulates the Jew’s mission statement as: “I was created to serve G‑d3”? Isn’t the definition of “serving,” doing? Is it possible to serve just by being? (I’ve met some people at hotel room service who’ve thought so....)

Also, what type of declaration is, “they will recite My praise”? According to the system of His own design, G‑d gave mankind the freedom to choose whether or not they will serve Him (“My praise”), yet here, G‑d reveals that He is absolutely certain of this praise. This verse seems to speak of (Divine) Providence determining our service more than of (Divine) Confidence in our ability to choose for ourselves.

Whence the certainty?

As we shall discover, G‑d’s surety in the recitation of His praise derives from something beyond Jewish observance (the service which, in reality, is left to our free will). The praise G‑d speaks of in this verse is not recited by the “people He formed for Himself” but rather because of them.

In other words, the Jewish people will recite G‑d’s praise without actually reciting it. (How’s that for a riddle?) It will be recited not verbally or through action, but existentially, by the permanence of this nation’s history more than by their monumental contributions to society.

What they do, and even who they are, is less relevant to this glorification of G‑d than the fact that they are, and forever continue to be.

Poetically speaking, then, the Jewish people are not (in this context) the singers of G‑d; they are His song.

Allow me to introduce you to some renditions of those who sang without even knowing why:

Like this one by one noted writer:

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. . . . The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was…. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.4

Or this one by a noted philosopher: “This people are not eminent solely by their antiquity, but are also singular by their duration….”5

Even the Jew’s mortal enemy, Hitler (may his name be blotted out), could not help but inadvertently sing our praise when he said:

When over long periods of human history I scrutinized the activity of the Jewish people, suddenly there arose up in me the fearful question whether inscrutable Destiny, perhaps for reasons unknown to us poor mortals, did not, with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation.6

While the observations quoted above recognize the immortality of the Jewish people, they fail to identify the source of their durability.

Which brings us to the words of some historians who did. To return to the metaphor of music, we might say that the following comments made by noted thinkers incorporate the theory behind the music they played.

The preservation of the Jews is really one of the most signal and illustrious acts of divine Providence… and what but a supernatural power could have preserved them in such a manner as none other nation upon earth hath been preserved.7

And another rendition:

The Jews have played an all-important role in history. They are pre-eminently a historical people and their destiny reflects the indestructibility of the divine decrees. Their destiny is too imbued with the “metaphysical” to be explained either in material or positive historical terms.

I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jew, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint. And, indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished. Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. 8

Religious Immortality

But there’s another stanza in the Jewish song. For the Jew represents not just an immortal people but a faith that is eternal as well. Despite the many persecutions he has suffered throughout his trying history, through holocaust and living hell, through exile, Inquisition, Cossack and Crusade, he has never failed to staunchly guard his tradition and to carry the torch of G‑d high.

I recall reading a moving passage in Elie Wiesel’s memoirs where he describes life in Auschwitz:9

In the morning my father and I would rise before the general wake-up call and go to a nearby block where someone had traded a dozen rations of bread for a pair of phylacteries. We would strap them onto our left arm and forehead, quickly recite the ritual blessings, and then pass them on to the next person. A few dozen prisoners thereby sacrificed their sleep, and sometimes their rations of bread or coffee, to perform the Mitzvah, the commandment to wear Tefillin. Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp.10

Is there any greater exaltation of G‑d’s name?

In the words of the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy:11

What is the Jew?...What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!

The Jew –is the symbol of eternity…. He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.12

So the Jew does serve G‑d just by being. And while this “being” is expressed through action (Jewish observance), the Jew’s very existence—independent of behavior—is a powerful testament to the Divine, and a service of its own.

As one famous story has it, the German Kaiser once asked his statesman, Otto Bismarck, “Can you prove the existence of God?”

Bismarck replied, “The Jews, your majesty, the Jews.”

What’s in It for Me?

Following is a (loose) translation of the Rebbe’s concluding words at the public address mentioned earlier:

The above teaches us a practical lesson regarding the affirmative way in which we should view our fellow Jew. Each and every Jew, man, woman or child, regardless of their situation [level of observance] is a Jew, an integral part of the nation about whom G‑d says, “This people I formed for Myself; they will recite My praise.”

The practical implication of this is that when one encounters another Jew who is not yet committed to Judaism for whatever reason, one’s attitude towards him or her should be: This person is a part of the people G‑d formed for Himself [independent of his or her behavior]. And through the very existence of this individual G‑d is praised!

How much more so in our generation when many unaffiliated Jews have the halachic status of a “child who was held captive by the nations” [who is not held accountable for his lack of Jewish observance, not having had a Jewish upbringing], and are therefore not at fault for their lack of affiliation.

Moreover, being the children of those who went through the recent indescribable sufferings [the Holocaust] – “may this calamity never reoccur!” 13– they are “walking miracles” who declare G‑d’s praise by their very existence.

The practical application of this fundamental teaching is that we must go to the furthest extremes to speak positively about our Jewish brothers and sisters, and we must constantly seek to give them the benefit of the doubt, knowing that they possess the tremendous quality of being a part of G‑d’s nation. Moreover, when one praises a fellow Jew one should realize that, in fact, one is praising G‑d, who chose this individual to be part of his people!