Survival Throughout History

Blaise Pascal, French theologian and philosopher, wrote at length about theHow did a persecuted people, displaced and disheartened, manage to survive? marvel of Jewish survival. Powerful kings have tried to destroy us, yet we 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, Your Majesty—the Jews.”

Tolstoy, Churchill, Twain, Adams and others have all written with wonder about the phenomenon of Jewish survival. 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—it is our survival of spirit, culture and identity. 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.

Who is correct, the rationalist or the believer?

Abraham and Isaac

The Torah introduces the Patriarch Isaac in a curious fashion: “These are the progeny of Isaac, son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac.”1 Wondering about the apparent redundancy in the verse, the sages explained that the scoffers of the time doubted that Abraham (who was 100 years old at Isaac’s birth) begot Isaac and charged that the Philistine king, Abimelech, who briefly abducted Sarah, was the real father. Therefore, 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.2

Many centuries later, Chassidic masters found a moral teaching in this verse. Abraham was an outgoing man filled with loveTo truly connect with G‑d, we must serve Him with whatever trait necessary for people and G‑d. Isaac was quiet and disciplined; he worshipped G‑d with reverence. 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 Chassidic masters taught that it isn’t sufficient to serve G‑d with our inherent traits. To truly connect with G‑d, we must serve Him with whatever trait necessary. Sometimes G‑d requires us to be courageous, sometimes exuberant, sometimes restrained. And we must rise to the occasion. We must conjure up the necessary traits if we want to be true servants.3

The traditional commentaries view this verse as an indication that G‑d intervened to defend Abraham from his detractors. The Chassidic commentary views this verse as an indication that Abraham and Isaac routinely transcended their dispositions and limitations to serve G‑d. But these two viewpoints are not contradictory; rather, they work hand in hand. When we determine to serve G‑d with everything we have, overcoming our every limitation, G‑d responds in kind and intervenes miraculously.4

So to return to our original question, is our secret of survival divine intervention or human resolve? The answer is both. When we resolve to serve G‑d with total devotion, rising to every occasion and giving Him everything we have, G‑d responds in kind and ensures our survival miraculously.

Jewish Survival

A brief review of Jewish history will illustrate. Our ancestors were delivered miraculously from Egypt, the house of bondage. Yet, they wouldn’t have been liberated if the Jewish women had 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: Should they 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 them.

In Israel, G‑d saved our ancestors fromJewish survival was in peril 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 negotiate a promise of protection with Vespasian.

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 part is that he penned his magnum opus Sifsei Kohen, a vast and incisive analysis of Jewish law, under the most trying of circumstances. Today, no halachic analysis is possible without consulting Rabbi Kohen’s works. But we wouldn’t have access to Rabbi Kohen’s halachic brilliance if he hadn’t risen to the occasion and shown such miraculous courage under fire.

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. All her paternal cousins remained observant, a miraculous feat in the Soviet Union.

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 relate that the miraculous in Israel is a matter of course. As Ben-Gurion said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

How does Israel survive when a fifth column of Palestinians live within its borders and, according to most polls, are 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 superiorG‑d saves us when we show our devotion to Him 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 catches most of the missiles headed its way, but who saves Israel from the missiles that slip through the dome and land safely nonetheless?

The answer is as obvious to us as it was to Pascal. It is G‑d who saves the Jews. But 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 mitzvah we haven’t yet observed or strengthen one we already do.

Let us do our part, and in return, let G‑d do his.