Mark Twain is famous among the Jewish people for this sagacious quote (Harper’s Magazine, September 1899):
“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. . . The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived 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 but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Rav Yaakov Emden writes that our survival throughout all the persecutions and exiles is the greatest miracle of them all, a greater miracle than all the miracles in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea.
This week’s haftarah is from the 5th and 6th perakim of Sefer Micha. While sometimes the link between parsha and haftarah is not clear, the connection here is easy to understand. Micha mentions the episode of Balak and Bilaam attempting to curse Klal Yisrael and Hashem thwarting their plans. The Navi describes our epic salvations from the clutches of our enemies and compares us to the dew, “the Heavenly gift to mankind which Hashem always provides, even to individuals and societies that are undeserving,” as Rav Dovid Feinstein writes in his sefer on the haftaros. He continues, “Even when there is a shortage of rain, the dew remains. Similarly, Israel will not only survive, but will be a blessing to their host nations, like dew that is always a blessing.”
We actually know the answer to Mark Twain’s question and the secret of our survival. It is only G-d’s Hand in guarding our continued existence and our dedication to Torah that has allowed us to endure.
Faced with a history of suffering, sorrow, and persecution, Jews have met adversity with strong resilience and fortitude. How have we maintained our distinctness and unique traditions? What has been the key to thwarting our assimilation into the cultures of the nations?
Rav Saadia Gaon explaines that the Jewish nation exists not because of land, language or culture; rather it’s because of Torah. If ever there would be a time when Jews would stop caring about the wisdom in the Torah, they would quickly disappear as a result of assimilation.
Rav Yaakov Weinberg points out that the Torah itself provides for its own continuity. The world at large began to value education and literacy for the masses relatively recently, around 200 years ago, with the advent of free public education. Until then, education was viewed solely as a pursuit for the elite of society. Many religions had a special interest in keeping the masses uneducated so as to avoid questioning in their faiths. Jewish education for the masses, however, goes back to the Revelation at Sinai. Three thousand years ago, G-d commanded us to study Torah every day of our lives. Of course, in order to study, every single Jew had to know how to read and write. So, basic mass education was guaranteed. Torah study and intellectual pursuit was and remains our lifeblood.