By all the laws of history, the Jewish people should not exist… yet here we are, the same identifiable nation we’ve always been. What is the secret to our survival?
Jewish history has no parallel nor precedent. Ours is a story of exile and survival. For thousands of years, the mightiest empires have come and gone, and yet here we are, the same identifiable nation we’ve always been.
This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, boldly predicts the trajectory of Jewish history with its exile and dispersement: “And I will scatter you among the nations.” (Vayikra 26:33) In all of human history, no other nation has survived long term in exile from its land. Many nations have been conquered, and some have been exiled, but none remain. However, this week’s portion not only predicts our exile, but also our survival, intact as a nation, with all our values.
No one could have predicted this outcome. By all the laws of history, the Jewish nation should not exist. How could a nation scattered in exile, with no common language, country or culture, hold on to its distinct identity, with its values and mission? And yet this is exactly what has happened. “When I consider these wonders [of the survival of the Jews in exile],” said Rabbi Yaakov Emden, “they appear greater to me than all the miracles and wonders that G-d did for our ancestors in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and in the land of Israel.” The Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, the Manna from Heaven – all are eclipsed by the miracle of our survival in exile.
And in our own times, we have seen the stunning revival of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, and the return of so many Jews to our homeland. There has also been a revival of Torah life in many communities around the world, with an astonishing revitalisation of Torah learning in the great citadels of our nation’s learning, the Yeshivot.
What is the secret to this survival? Our parsha has the answer, and it’s just one word – “brit”, or “covenant”. G-d’s covenant to the Jewish people – first outlined in Genesis with Abraham and reiterated in this week’s parsha – remains unbroken: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you, throughout the generations. An eternal covenant to be your G-d, and the G-d of your descendants after you.”
Our parsha shows the historic impact of the covenant when it says: “But, despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not… reject them… nor annul my covenant with them… I will remember for them the covenant with the first ones, whom I took out of the land of Egypt.” (Ibid. 26: 44) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the word “brit” comes from the Hebrew root “to separate”, implying that the covenant is separate from – and independent of – all circumstances; it is unconditional and unbreakable.
The Ibn Ezra says this “covenant of the first ones” refers to the covenant that G-d entered into with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. This ties in with Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg’s understanding that the word “brit” is connected to the word “to choose” – implying the Jewish people were chosen – designated – for a specific mission and a purpose. And that purpose is to bring the light of Torah into the world.
The covenant, the brit, with G-d, creates an unbreakable bond between us and G-d. As Jews, we are called on to fulfil the precepts and commandments of the Torah, and G-d guarantees we will survive and thrive as a nation as a result – whatever our adverse circumstances. All of the mitzvot are part of this covenant, but a few of them, such as brit mila (circumcision), Shabbat and tefillin – are symbolic of it.
To summarise, G-d made a specific covenant with our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – an eternal pledge that bound Him to their descendants. And G-d renewed that covenant after He took us out of Egypt and brought us to Mount Sinai, giving us our Divine mission as a people. And that covenant is the guarantee of our future.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob represent the three recurring stages of Jewish history. Abraham was called a “prince” among the locals; he commanded a place of respect and honour. For Isaac, his interactions with the surrounding nations of the land of Israel were more complicated; while he had a degree of freedom and independence, there was a tension in their relationship – an envy which gave rise to prejudice and suspicion. And Jacob’s life was lived almost entirely in painful exile.
There have been times in Jewish history when we have been like Abraham – a prince among the nations. Take the era of King David, for example, consolidated during the reign of King Solomon, during which the Jewish People enjoyed unquestioned, unshakeable sovereignty in our homeland and were a global superpower, revered by other nations, and exerting significant cultural influence over the world at large. There have also been times in Jewish history when we have been like Isaac, enjoying freedom and independence, while suspicion, anti-Semitism and envy were directed towards us. And then there have been the times of Jacob; times of unimaginable darkness. And we don’t have to travel too far back in history to identify a period like that.
These three different historical phases correspond to the three prayer services instituted by our forefathers. Avraham established the morning Shacharit prayer service, when the world is bright and new and full of promise. Yitzchak established the afternoon Mincha prayer service, when there’s still light, but the day is heading towards darkness. And Yaakov established the night-time Maariv prayer service, when there’s only darkness.
Our history is a cycle. Sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down, and sometimes we’re not quite sure where we are on the wheel. But the message of the covenant is clear. No matter what historical stage we find ourselves in, we are called on to stay connected to our G-d-given, Torah-mandated mission. When there is respect and admiration from society, there is a temptation to become complacent and self-satisfied, and a challenge to remain loyal to that mission. In times of exile, darkness and oppression, it becomes practically and emotionally difficult to stay true to our mission. When that ill will is under the surface, in times of suspicion, jealousy and prejudice, there are other challenges. But the covenant also assures us that in these different stages, no matter how dark and difficult things get, G-d is there with us, looking after us, never deserting us.
The covenant is G-d’s promise to us that we will never be lost, and that no matter how dark the world becomes, we will emerge on the other side, ready to embrace another day, intact and connected to our eternal destiny.
That, ultimately, is the promise of our parsha – that G-d will remember the covenant and never abandon us to history. And it is through this covenant that we find our sense of mission and purpose, of inspiration and defiance of the natural laws of history, of optimism and faith in the future.