Some of my best friends are professors of Jewish history. They are wonderful people, and love what they do. However, they spend a lot of time trying to make sense of something completely illogical and improbable, namely the continued existence and flourishing of the Jewish people.
If the history of the Jewish people were a novel it would already be on the discount sale rack because the story is just so preposterous. We should have vanished into history many times over, but here we are.
The questions I would like to look at are where do we come from, why are we still here, and what are we here for?
Let’s take a quick look at the last thirty eight hundred years of Jewish history, because I want to show you that at no point was our survival as a people predictable or probable. Even our origin defies logic.
Think about Abraham and Sarah. God wants to start a new people. Who would you start with? Would you pick an elderly couple who was childless, homeless and jobless? Probably not, but that is who Abraham and Sarah were. God chose them because they were always on the side of the oppressed, the disenfranchised and those for whom society could find no use. They saw things in others that no one else did and created the family that would become the Jewish people.
Let’s go forward 1800 years. In the year 70 the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and set in motion the exile of the Jewish people around the world that would last into our own time. The reason you destroy a temple is to show that your god is more powerful than the god of the people you conquered. It would be logical and reasonable for that people to adopt the god or gods of their conquerors. We did not do that. We believed that God was not done with us, that God still loved us, though, it must be admitted that it seems at times God has a funny way of showing that love. Nonetheless, the Jews who went through that terrible period persisted in their faith.
The Jews of that time had, though, in some ways a bigger problem than the Roman occupation. The temple and its system of sacrifice was the one place for Jews that served for the expiation and forgiveness of sin. If you could not have your sins forgiven, then you could not have a relationship with God. Therefore, Judaism really should have stopped there. Instead, our sages said that there was a substitute for sacrifice that God actually preferred. That is Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness to others above and beyond the minimum. This becomes Judaism as we know it today.
The sages created a system that was no longer dependent on a particular place, nor on an elitist priesthood, and made it accessible to every Jew, including those who went into exile. You cannot carry a temple with you, but you can carry your heart, mind and soul. Acts of kindness toward others, Jewish or not Jewish, was the equivalent of the high priest bringing the Yom Kippur sacrifice.
The idea was so revolutionary and against any conventional thinking about religion, that if they were to try it today they would be scorned by the very people who benefited from their courage.
Our sages, though, believed that we still had something to offer the world, the belief that might does not make right, and that there is no one stronger than the one that shows kindness to others, even during the worst of circumstances, even when it seems that that world has gone dark.
A thousand years later were the Crusades which destroyed so many Jewish communities of Europe. At this same time, Rashi and his students were writing some of the greatest Torah commentaries of all time, commentaries we study to this day. If you read their works, you would never guess the complete chaos of their lives. They refused to give in to that chaos, and created intellectual beauty, because they still believed in the essential or at least potential goodness of humanity.
Four hundred years later is the Spanish inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It is also the flourishing of Jewish mysticism, of kabbalah, as we know it. The kabbalists knew that their physical homes may be under threats from others, but the spiritual homes they built were permanent and eternal.
The most extraordinary period in all of Jewish history was of course the middle of the twentieth century. The holocaust should have meant an end to Judaism. Who would ever want to be Jewish afterward? Who would ever want to raise a Jewish family again? One of the most impressive acts of courage was the fact that so many survivors began families after everything they went through. Some of them started new families after having lost everyone in their previous family. They refused to allow the darkness to win.
Who could have imagined after such devastation, after such helplessness, that we would have our own country, or that in other countries such as America you would have more synagogues and yeshivot and day school and religious schools than in any point in our history? We should have disappeared from history, but instead we became a critical part of the world.
It sounds like a big part of being Jewish is experiencing tragedy. There are some who say that we have suffered more than anyone else in history. We certainly have had our share, but everybody suffers. The difference is that while so many other people’s have vanished or became marginal after their suffering, we have always found ways to recreate ourselves and continue to grow and develop.
None of this was predictable. None of this was logical. How did it happen? I think what we see is that throughout our history, we have always made a commitment to find meaning in life in times of tragedy and optimism in times of despair. We have always found light in the darkness, and have tried to bring that light to others. I believe that is the main reason for the Jewish people, and what we must always do if we are to continue as a people. If we do not, then Judaism becomes empty ritual and ethnic exclusivity.
The idea of revealing the light hidden in the world has been built into all aspects of Judaism since its beginning. In the Torah, the first thing that God creates is light. It cannot be sunlight, because the sun is not created until the fourth day. The kabbalists understand that light to be God’s spirit on earth. The world was a place of darkness and chaos, and God bring light and warmth to it. When humanity is cruel, then that light diminishes. When humanity is kind, then the light it revealed. Judaism, both in ritual and practice is about revealing that light.
On Shabbat we have two sets of light. Friday night when it begins, and Saturday night when it ends. The first set of lights are for you and your family at the end of the week. It is a reminder of the spark of God found within each of us, and a sign that we somehow made it through a week we may have thought we could not have. The lights of havdallah, though, are for us to bring that light with us wherever we go during the week. It is to remind us to be a source of light and comfort to everyone we encounter, including people we find difficult. It is amazing how quickly a kind word can change a challenging person into a grateful one.
The most famous lights of all are probably the Chanukah candles. This is more than bringing some light during the darkest time of the year, but remembering that we have survived the darkest moments in history and are here to celebrate. I want to share a story with you that I find so powerful. Our enemies have always tried to demoralize our leaders, because if the leader gives in, then all the followers will, too. During the holocaust a chasidic rabbi and his followers were all brought into a large warehouse. They had been in the camp for a while and were on the verge of starvation. The commandant of the camp when up to the rabbi and asked him if he would like the stick of margarine in his hand, which had enough calories to sustain a person for a number of days. All he had to do was fall on his knees and beg. The followers assumed the rabbi would refuse, but the rabbi begged. The commandant laughed, put the margarine on the floor, and ground it with the heel of his boot. He then left the warehouse to tell the others of how he had gotten the rabbi to beg. As soon as the commandant left, the rabbi told his disciples, “Don’t you know tonight is chanukah.” He pulled a button off his jacket, pulled off a few threads for a wick, gathered the margarine, and created a menorah. When the commandant returned, he found four hundred Jews singing maoz tzur. I wish I could tell you that they were all saved. They weren’t, but for that moment they showed the potential of the human spirit.
This is what it means when God tells us to be a light to the nations of the world. A light to nations, not to the world as a whole, but each nation and its individual needs. It is our task to help each country find the best within themselves. This is one of the reasons it is hard to neatly define the Jewish people. Who we are depends so much on where we live, and the people with whom we live. The goal is always the same, to make wherever we live better for all people. Every country we have lived in has been better because of us. It is no just a matter of business or science and technology. We have helped spread democracy and tolerance. We have stood up for the poor and disenfranchised often against our own economic interests. We have risked our lives for others, even those who do not love us. We have shown that loyalty to the country you live in and loyalty to your faith are not a compromise, but the fulfillment of that faith.
Jewish mysticism says that when God was creating the world he tried to contain the light in special vessels, but those vessels shattered. The shards of those vessels fell to earth, with a spark of that light attached to each broken peace.
The chasidic masters understood this as a metaphor for all the brokenness in people, that could be repaired if we found that spark of light within them.
This why so many Jews created organizations like JARC, Yad Ezra, Kadima and Friendship Circle, and have supported endless numbers of non-Jewish charities.
It is why so many Jews got involved in civil rights. For example, the late Rabbi Ernst Conrad was in Germany during kristallnacht. He ironically had just left a Wagner opera, when the riots began all around him. When he came to America, he fought for the rights of others, because he knew that the oppression of one group leads to the oppression of all.
The idea that each person has a spark of God within is even a reason that so many Jews became therapists. There is evidence that even Sigmund Freud was influenced by this idea of finding the light within the shards of the shattered vessel. Psychotherapy and other therapeutic treatments became a way of repairing the world, and saving people from the darkness of their lives.
The chasidic rabbis even extended this idea to how we think about our enemies. We must always defend ourselves, but we must still remember that our enemies are human, and have within them a spark of God as well, deeply buried as it may be. We must fight our enemies, not by our enemies standards, but by the standards of Jewish ethics. Psalm 27, the Psalm for the high holidays, says, Do not put within me the spirit of my enemies.
When we remember this we have done well. Our worst defeats have been when we have forgotten this. There is nothing greater that we can do than transform hatred into enlightenment. I believe this is the reason that we have returned to the land of Israel. It was not to build a Jewish fortress, but to help create a promised land for everyone. It is taking longer than we would like, but there is a reason that the national anthem is called Hatikvah, the hope. To be a Jew means to always have hope, even when there does not seem to be a chance. There is nothing logical about this hope, but as I have mentioned nothing about our history is logical. We might be the ones who truly see the dream of our ancestors fulfilled, that nation will not lift up sword against nation, and that humanity will no longer no war.
In every synagogue in the world there is an eternal light. It means that every generation before us defied the reality of the world, defied all the forces that tried to extinguish what was best in humanity, and chose life. It is also a challenge to us to stay strong, to not become bitter or cynical, and to embrace lives of meaning for us, our loved ones, and all of humanity even when things seem hopeless. If we do, we will be the light of a splendid and brilliant future.
Painting copyright Aaron Bergman