Nation Elimination: Why Israel Alone Remains

 

Image result for mir yeshivaOccasionally, you read something so strong, so close to you, so transformative, that it stays with you forever. You find yourself referring back to it time and again as you warm to its truth, passing it along to others with a growing sense of urgency as the years go by.

Thirty odd years ago, while living in northern California, I picked up a San Francisco Chronicle one day and stumbled upon Herb Caen (as in candy cane). Herb Caen wrote a gossipy, but never snarky, daily column (for fifty-eight years!) that was a conglomeration of everything going on, especially in San Francisco but also in the world at large, together with observations, sprinkled liberally throughout, on the passing political and cultural scene. Among Caen’s claims to fame were the introduction of “beatnik” into the lexicon and a Pulitzer Prize. Caen had a goofy sense of humor and you never knew when it might make its presence felt, often by separating completely unrelated items solely by means of three dot ellipses.

. . . a message from Herb Caen . . .

Suddenly, as if launched from a set of those three dots, flying through the column like a shooting star, and finally disappearing into another set of dots, was the following: “. . . Everyone knows that Jews are the chosen people except, of course, the Jews. . .”

Now that was something to think about. In those days, with my own Jewish self-awareness still rather dim, I completely got the part about Jews not seeing themselves as exceptional since many of them, including myself, would only reluctantly identify as Jews, if at all. It was the first part about the universal recognition of Jewish uniqueness that astonished me. I thought that the only distinguishing feature of Jews, as far as other people were concerned, was the target on their backs. Yes, Jews were chosen, I might concede, but only as objects of derision. The fact that they were recognized in the eyes of others as chosen in a positive sense, for that was clearly Caen’s understanding of the matter, was a revelation to me.

Caen was the perfect vehicle for delivery of this message. Born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he mixed comfortably in every social circle even though, in the words of a long time acquaintance, “he felt Jewish.”

Proof That G-d Exists

Here are four parallel encounters, some of them fictionalized perhaps, that underscore, nevertheless, an appreciation for Jewish uniqueness among non-Jews:

King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, to give him proof that miracles exist. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews.”

When King Frederick the Great asked his physician, Johan Georg Zimmermann, to name a single proof for the existence of G-d, Zimmermann replied, “Your majesty, the Jews.”

In a similar vein, when the Kaiser of Prussia asked his chief adviser, Otto Von Bismarck, if he could prove the existence of G-d, Bismarck responded, “The Jews, sir, the Jews.”

Finally, when Queen Victoria asked Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli what evidence he could provide for the existence of God, Disraeli thought for a moment and then replied, “The Jew, your majesty.” (Although baptized as a child, along with his siblings, since his parents thought that would improve his prospects in life, Disraeli’s parents were actually Jews themselves.)

If you search the above encounters on the Internet, you will notice that they frequently make appearances on web sites devoted to Christian thought. The reactions expressed on those sites, in response to the idea that Jews are proof of G-d’s existence, are consistently positive. So Caen’s observation holds true, at least the first part regarding a chosen status for Jews on the part of non-Jews.

Mark Twain’s Tribute

Mark Twain summed it up like this: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

The Secret of Jewish Immortality

The secret of Jewish immortality is the written Torah (5 books comprising the Pentateuch), the other 19 books of the Hebrew Bible, and the oral Torah or Talmud. The Talmud, written down around 200 A.D., consists of 63 tractates, comprising 2,711 two-sided pages, that form a detailed, argument laden guidebook to Jewish living, with inspiring tales, often bordering on the miraculous, included for good measure. The oral Torah has equal status with the written Torah, each originating as a transmission from G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Hebrew word for a page of Talmud is daf, which is also the word for a wooden plank or board. It was this divinely fashioned board, a supernal life raft, upon which we stayed afloat, throughout the generations, despite the turbulent seas of persecution that threatened to engulf us.

As Twain indicates, the powerful peoples or nations of the world have disappeared but the Jews remain. It might be argued that the reason for this is that the elements that bind Jews into a nation are stronger than those that have existed for other peoples.

Israel’s Land, Language, History & Faith are Recorded in G-d’s Book

Yet the elements that bind Jews together are the same that bind together any group of people that lays claim to nationhood: a land, a language, a history, and a faith. But there is a significant difference. Where Jews are concerned, these elements are clearly visible in the Torah, a living document that anyone can consult, which was authored by G-d Himself. 

If you enter a synagogue and see the Torah being taken from the ark, you will quickly understand the Torah’s central importance to the Jewish nation when you see everyone rise. No nation in the world, except for the Jews, stands up for a book.

Let’s now revisit Herb Caen’s statement: “Everyone knows that Jews are the chosen people except, of course, the Jews.” Although the second part of this statement could be understood as an assessment of a nation that is self-critical to the point of wishing to assimilate into the surrounding culture, it could be construed in another way as well.

Jewish Survival Does not Depend on Merit, but on G-d’s Unconditional Love

Jacob Emden (1697-1776), a prominent German rabbi and scholar, would have concurred that the Jews have no claim to a special status. Emden held that Jews were no more meritorious than other peoples and, based on their behavior alone, had no more right to longevity than any other nation. Rather, he maintained, there was only one ultimate explanation for Jewish survival: G-d’s unconditional love for the Jewish people. It’s as simple as a father’s unconditional love for his children. No matter how many times they mess up, he still loves them, maybe even more than when they were good, and he still just likes having them around.

G-d’s unconditional love for the nation of Israel is reciprocated through Israel’s unconditional love for G-d. When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac, he did not hesitate to follow G-d’s command. Abraham “rose early the next morning” (Genesis 22:3) to start the journey to Mount Moriah.

Self-deprecation, Leadership & Survival

Emden’s self-deprecating attitude is essential to Jewish leadership, if not to Jewish national survival itself. Your best qualities are those of which you are least aware and the greatest Jews have never been triumphal, patently denying any claim to chosenness. No memorable Jewish leader ever wanted to be one, starting with Moses — the only man who spoke with G-d “face to face” (Exodus 33:11) — himself. Moses kept trying to back out of assuming the mantle of leadership, but G-d would not have it any other way. Yet, through it all, Moses remained “very humble, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) 

Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (later known as the Kotzker rebbe), in the early 1800’s, after searching far and wide for a town in which to serve as a rabbi, finally decided on Kotzk (in eastern Poland) when, upon his arrival there, the residents pelted him with rocks. “Here is where I want to be,” the rabbi remarked, “since at least the people here have passion.”

We Don’t Even Know Their Names

The names of the great rabbis of previous generations are not known to the general public but, through their writings and personalities, they remain the exalted luminaries of the nation of Israel. The names of these self-effacing rabbis are not known to the vast majority of Jews, either. Instead, the rabbis in question are recognized by an abbreviated version of their names (Rashi and Rambam, for example), by names associated with towns where they lived (see Kotzker rebbe above), or by the titles of their written works (such as Chofetz Chaim and Mesilat Yesharim). Imagine that Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were known to the general public as “Declaration of Independence” and “Common Sense,” but that few people associated the names of Jefferson and Paine with these works.

The highest compliment a Jew can receive is to be called a talmid chacham, a “wise student.” Truly wise students are forever passionately striving and never rest on past achievements or success. There is always something more to learn. In the end, perhaps it is this unparalleled passion to keep learning, with a healthy measure of self-deprecation that invariably goes along with such a pursuit, that has preserved the nation of Israel.

There are 25 comments.

  1. Jules PA Member

    Love this. Loved reading this. 

     

    • #1
    • November 14, 2018, at 2:47 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Jules PA Member

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu: It’s as simple as a father’s unconditional love for his children. No matter how many times they mess up, he still loves them, maybe even more than when they were good, and he still just likes having them around.

    Thankfully, this is true. Knowing this gives us the power and courage to get past mistakes, and try again. 

    • #2
    • November 14, 2018, at 2:50 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  3. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    Only a parent can truly appreciate G-d’s love for His children.

    • #3
    • November 14, 2018, at 3:51 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  4. MarciN Member

    That Jews are G-d’s chosen people is a foundation for Christians as well as Jews. Christians accept the Old Testament–the Hebrew Bible–as a true account of G-d’s interactions with people.

    Jews are not alone. More like an oldest child who has a special and deeper relationship with his or her parents than his or her siblings do, simply because, at one point, he or she was the only child in the family. Unfortunately, for many oldest children, there are steep burdens that go with that original and older relationship.

    As a third child, I’ve always felt very sorry for the oldest children. Parents don’t realize that they are always calling on that oldest child to help them. Watching families interact with each other, it is really funny to see how this happens. The oldest is more competent and more verbal that the “later borns” when the kids are little. It’s easier and quicker for the parents to ask them for help. But then the parents never seem to get out of the habit. My sister-in-law once lamented at a family party as we heard her mother call her to help, “There are four kids in the family. How come my mother and father know only one name?” Did we low-life siblings jump up to help instead? No. Of course not. We laughed at her joke and let her, once again, go help. :-)

    Jews are not alone. Ever. We are a family of G-d. He knows you best. Half of the Bible is addressed to you, to Israel. It’s a terrible burden. We siblings always try to shirk our responsibilities. :-) But you are never alone.

    • #4
    • November 14, 2018, at 4:14 AM PDT
    • 14 likes
  5. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    Food for thought and well-expressed. Yes, the oldest child has burdens the younger ones will never understand.

    • #5
    • November 14, 2018, at 4:20 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. Percival Thatcher

    MarciN (View Comment):

    That Jews are G-d’s chosen people is a foundation for Christians as well as Jews. Christians accept the Old Testament–the Hebrew Bible–as a true account of G-d’s interactions with people.

    Jews are not alone. More like an oldest child who has a special and deeper relationship with his or her parents than his or her siblings do, simply because, at one point, he or she was the only child in the family. Unfortunately, for many oldest children, there are steep burdens that go with that original and older relationship.

    As a third child, I’ve always felt very sorry for the oldest children. Parents don’t realize that they are always calling on that oldest child to help them. Watching families interact with each other, it is really funny to see how this happens. The oldest is more competent and more verbal that the “later borns.” It’s easier for the parents. As my sister-in-law once lamented at a family party as we heard her mother call her to help, “There are four kids in the family. How come my mother and father know only one name?” :-)

    Jews are not alone. Ever. We are a family of G-d. He knows you best. Half of the Bible is addressed to you, to Israel. It’s a terrible burden. We wretched siblings always shirk our responsibilities. But you are never alone.

    I’m the eldest of three, who once in a family-famous episode responded to the observation “you’re the oldest — you should know better” with “I’m six!

    (I did know better of course but that wasn’t the point.)

    Great piece, YBE.

    • #6
    • November 14, 2018, at 4:53 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  7. Kevin Schulte Member

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu: Jewish Survival Does not Depend on Merit, but on G-d’s Unconditional Love

    Amen, Amen, Amen

    My survival too!

    • #7
    • November 14, 2018, at 5:51 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  8. PHCheese Member

    Forgive me but I couldn’t help but think of that old joke. Moses was talking to God and says, “ let me get this right. The Arabs get all the oil and we get to cut off the tip of what”?

    • #8
    • November 14, 2018, at 5:54 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Great post, thank you.

    I have always thought that “nothing comes between a Jew and his G-d”, not a priest, not a “church”. No institution needs to be created to intermediate between any Jew and G-d.

    • #9
    • November 14, 2018, at 6:22 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  10. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):
    “nothing comes between a Jew and his G-d”

    Never heard that before, but I have to say I like it. Moses’ burial site is unknown. This is important since, if it were, it could have become a place for idolization of Moses at the expense of G-d.

    • #10
    • November 14, 2018, at 6:54 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  11. Vectorman Thatcher

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu: “Everyone knows that Jews are the chosen people except, of course, the Jews.” Although the second part of this statement could be understood as an assessment of a nation that is self-critical to the point of wishing to assimilate into the surrounding culture, it could be construed in another way as well.

    As part of a Christian group visiting a Liberal Synagogue, the Jewish discussion leader (not a Rabbi) made a modern “feminist” point about male privilege. I held my tongue, as I wanted to explain how the Jews included important women in their history and teachings.

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu: It’s as simple as a father’s unconditional love for his children. No matter how many times they mess up, he still loves them, maybe even more than when they were good, and he still just likes having them around.

    Along the same lines, the Jews emphasize the importance of family life. Most other cultures look at women as chattel, even today. And IIRC, the religious heritage of the children passes through the mother rather than the father.

    When we talk about Western Civilization, we mention Greece and Rome for their philosophy. But the primary spark (a stable and loving family under G-d) was discovered 3,000 years ago by the Jews.

    • #11
    • November 14, 2018, at 7:03 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  12. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    Most other cultures look at women as chattel, even today.

    In Judaism, the honor given to your wife is second only to the honor given to G-d.

    • #12
    • November 14, 2018, at 7:14 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  13. Jim McConnell Member

    MarciN (View Comment):
     MarciN  

    That Jews are G-d’s chosen people is a foundation for Christians as well as Jews. Christians accept the Old Testament–the Hebrew Bible–as a true account of G-d’s interactions with people.

    Jews are not alone. More like an oldest child who has a special and deeper relationship with his or her parents than his or her siblings do, simply because, at one point, he or she was the only child in the family. Unfortunately, for many oldest children, there are steep burdens that go with that original and older relationship.

    As a third child, I’ve always felt very sorry for the oldest children. Parents don’t realize that they are always calling on that oldest child to help them. Watching families interact with each other, it is really funny to see how this happens. The oldest is more competent and more verbal that the “later borns” when the kids are little. It’s easier and quicker for the parents to ask them for help. But then the parents never seem to get out of the habit. My sister-in-law once lamented at a family party as we heard her mother call her to help, “There are four kids in the family. How come my mother and father know only one name?” Did we low-life siblings jump up to help instead? No. Of course not. We laughed at her joke and let her, once again, go help. :-)

    Jews are not alone. Ever. We are a family of G-d. He knows you best. Half of the Bible is addressed to you, to Israel. It’s a terrible burden. We wretched siblings always shirk our responsibilities. But you are never alone.

    How very true, and profound.

    • #13
    • November 14, 2018, at 7:23 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. JudithannCampbell Coolidge

    Decades ago, I came across a beautiful poem about the Jewish people. I cannot remember the title or who wrote it-I think it was written around the 1950’s, by a fairly prominent American poet, but cannot remember, and cannot find it (with my limited knowledge) on the internet. Anyway, the poem says that many cultures-like the Romans and the Greeks-are like floods and roaring rivers, but the Jewish people are the dew which appears every morning. I wish I could remember more-am putting this out there because maybe someone else does?

    • #14
    • November 14, 2018, at 9:39 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    @yehoshuabeneliyahu explores how one nation, one people, has avoided elimination where all the great civilizations that washed over them, through the millennia, have been reduced to the history books.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under November’s theme of Elimination. There are plenty of dates still available. Perhaps someone will even offer a page from the diary of a hitman, purely fictional of course. Or maybe we will read about eliminating excess inventory. Hmm, inventory control specialist by day, hitman by night? Sounds like a TV drama? What about those ads? You know what I’m talking about—even the Charmin bears! The possibilities are endless, Ricochet cool cats! Why not tell us about it and start a conversation. Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits. Caveat: Given the theme, please keep in mind the basic rules of R>. As you polish ryour little masterpiece, do ensure that it stays within the refined edge of tacky. As a heads’ up, our December theme will be Veneration. I’ll post the sign-up sheet mid-month.

    • #15
    • November 14, 2018, at 11:03 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I am always deeply moved by those who have found their way back to the Jewish faith. I am taking baby steps to return, complicated by the fact that I’m married to a gentile. But slowly but surely my faith has become stronger and deeper. Thank you for inspiring me, @yehoshuabeneliyahu.

    • #16
    • November 14, 2018, at 11:22 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  17. Songwriter Member

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu: No memorable Jewish leader ever wanted to be one, starting with Moses — the only man who spoke with G-d “face to face” (Exodus 33:11) — himself.

    But if only we had more elected leaders who would see themselves in a similar light.

    Great post. Thx.

    • #17
    • November 14, 2018, at 11:39 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I am taking baby steps to return

    Your soul never left. Instead, you were “a captive child,” a concept in Judaism that refers to those whose childhood and development were remote from Jewish observance but who were not to blame since their upbringing included limited, sterile, or even non-existent exposure to Judaism, as if they had been taken captive at birth by a foreign nation.

    • #18
    • November 14, 2018, at 11:59 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Rereading the book of Daniel, with my bible study, I was struck by the prophetic vision of a series of empires rising, each defeating the last and then being destroyed in due time. And yet, the vision also revealed that those who remained faithful to Him would, in the end, share in an unending kingdom. 

    Daniel, taken from his land by the Babylonians, and trained as a royal court administrator, was in the business of writing. So, you had a people who were already dedicated to a written scripture, in an empire whose records are baked into small clay tablets, persisting to this very day. And we are given that Daniel was reading a text with the words of the prophet Jeremiah, a near contemporary. 

     

    • #19
    • November 14, 2018, at 12:02 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I am taking baby steps to return

    Your soul never left. Instead, you were “a captive child,” a concept in Judaism that refers to those whose childhood and development were remote from Jewish observance but who were not to blame since their upbringing included limited, sterile, or even non-existent exposure to Judaism, as if they had been taken captive at birth by a foreign nation.

    I’ve never heard the term. Thank you.

    • #20
    • November 14, 2018, at 12:13 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    With all the stuff going on within all the Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, I came up on my own with the aphorism about nothing coming between a Jew and his G-d. How many stories do you hear of corrupt Rabbis, or rabbinical seminaries? I can’t remember even one. That’s one big reason why the Jews have survived so long in the face of almost constant persecution. With no overarching Institutions to get wealthy and powerful, we Jews practice our faith with little interference. Even in the absence of a synagogue, a minyan can worship just about anywhere. Even the Holocaust couldn’t wipe us out. Probably nothing can.

    I also came up with my own idea of the Jews as the “conscience of humanity”. Only when the last Jew is gone will humanity be well and truly doomed. Let us pray that never happens.

    • #21
    • November 14, 2018, at 5:42 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    Most other cultures look at women as chattel, even today.

    In Judaism, the honor given to your wife is second only to the honor given to G-d.

    I think it is an error to make the distinction. Our marriage is the model and the route to our relationship to G-d.

    • #22
    • November 14, 2018, at 6:02 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  23. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    iWe (View Comment):
    Our marriage is the model and the route to our relationship to G-d.

    Maimonides would have agreed with you. He compares true love for G-d with the “love sickness” a man feels for a woman, when he can think of nothing else but her.

    • #23
    • November 14, 2018, at 6:18 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Only a parent can truly appreciate G-d’s love for His children.

    Or a child who has been loved in this unconditional way – and comes to know it for what it is, perhaps, as well? What an interesting, informative and lovely piece, YB-E! Thank you, as always! Shalom!

    • #24
    • November 14, 2018, at 8:33 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Post author

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Nanda Panjandrum

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Only a parent can truly appreciate G-d’s love for His children.

    Or a child who has been loved in this unconditional way – and comes to know it for what it is, perhaps, as well?

    Yes, and it’s really too bad that we typically do not recognize how much love our parents gave us until they are no longer here. How many children thank their parents for the love they received from them?

    • #25
    • November 15, 2018, at 4:44 AM PDT
    • 6 likes