The Secret of Jewish History
By Braha Bender
Jewish history is not like other peoples’ histories. But wait! Before you jump to the conclusion that this is going to be another stereotypical Jewish guilt trip about the holocaust, let me relieve you – that is actually not what makes our history so very different.
In fact, we are not unique in that we are persecuted – the Congolese Holocaust saw the deaths of over five million people between the mid-nineties and recent years. Romani and African peoples’ enslavement is still protested throughout the world today. We think nothing of the extinction of ancient civilizations like Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, and Persia, but their falls echoed throughout the known universe in their own times.
Sure, one of the elements that makes our history different is the unique depth and persistence of anti-Semitism. As Rabbi Leib Kelemen explains, “In our generation we have seen innocent Gentiles slaughtered around the world, from Sudan to Indonesia and from Chechnya to the Congo. But we—who read about these events not just in history books, but also in the morning paper—know that these non-Jewish victims were invariably killed only because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were not hunted down from country to country and sent to international extermination centers; neither were they made into soap and lampshades. Jews are treated differently.”
However, what really makes Jewish history unique is not our persecution but our survival. The inquisitions, pogroms, intifadas, and a host of other “final solutions” didn’t just apply to one or two generations – we have been in exile for over two thousand year!
Walking along the colorful streets of Manhattan, you might not realize the strange reality surrounding you since Sara Schwartzes and David Cohens make up a purported 12% of the population of the city. But the truth is that Sara, David, and the rest of today’s Jewry are all living archeological specimens. Abraham founded the nation around 1,800 B.C.E. Judaism as we know it today began with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai around 1,500 B.C.E. Everything else from that period in history, and most periods following, is buried in the layers upon layers beneath Jerusalems’ stones. Why are we still here?
An account in Parashas Chukas illustrates the principle that has distinguished us from nations throughout history.
Longing for Edom
When the Jewish People left Egypt, the Almighty didn’t leave them on their own. To the contrary, the years of Jewish journeying through the Sinai desert were some of the most spiritually transparent of our history. God provided the Jewish People with manna from heaven and water from a miraculous well that travelled with them wherever they went.
There was just one “catch”: the relationship was mutual. Though the Almighty delivered the delicious manna every day, the tzadikim (spiritually integrated, righteous people) would find it at their doorsteps whereas those less spiritually proactive would find it at somewhat more of a distance. Individuals who had made actively destructive choices were forced to cover a significant distance to find their meals. Spiritual growth was always a live option, and these varying statuses fluctuated on a daily, if not moment-to-moment, basis.
Our account describes Israel nearing the borders of Edom and gazing longingly upon the food systems that governed other nations’ subsistence. Edom had no intimate personal relationship with God. When a man made a buck, he could afford to eat. When he failed in business or agriculture, he went hungry. It was a dog-eat-dog world. None of this spiritual transparency business. Other nations’ lives never worked that way.
The Jews of the generation of the desert turned to Moshe (Moses) and the Almighty accusingly: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this Wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food?” (Numbers-Bamidbar 21:5)
They were not complaining about a real lack of food and water since they had plenty of both. The Jews were complaining about the uncomfortably close relationship they shared with the Almighty through His means of their sustenance. From their poorly chosen emotional vantage point, dog-eat-dog looked pretty good.
The Copper Snake
So the Almighty acquiesced to their desires: “God sent fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people. A large multitude of Israel died.” (ibid 6)
Now don’t misunderstand, it wasn’t a strange, supernatural punishment that God sent poisonous snakes. The nation was travelling through the Sinai desert! Travel through the Sinai desert today and you had better watch out for the Sinai Desert Cobra, a shiny black or dark brown nasty delivering a healthy dose of postsynaptic neurotoxins with every strike. The Horned Viper was one of the poisonous snakes the Egyptians historically feared most. The Saw Scaled Viper, the Spitting Cobra, and the Burton’s Carpet Viper are only a few more of the desert dangers awaiting travelers in scaly secret. The miracle was that some three million people travelling through the Sinai desert had never been bitten by venomous snakes before.
But the moment they asked to descend to the level of nature, the Jews’ miraculous protection stopped. The snakes were free to do their worst, and they did. The Jews’ supernatural intimacy with the Almighty might have felt uncomfortable sometimes, but it was nothing compared to the horrors awaiting them in the natural world – a lesson they learned pretty fast!
“We have sinned, for we have spoken against Hashem and against you! Pray to Hashem that He remove from us the serpent,” begged the people in the verse immediately following (ibid 7).
“Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Make yourself a fiery [serpent] and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live.’” (ibid 8) The solution wasn’t just the copper serpent that Moshe fashioned in response to the Almighty’s command. The solution was what the copper snake meant.
Moshe’s copper serpent stopped the plague by reminding Israel that snakes were a natural constant – turning away from intimacy with the Almighty meant turning towards a cold and uncaring world. It also reminded them that ultimately, even the laws of nature are in His hands. Slithering snakes don’t kill and copper snakes don’t heal. Even when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are on our own, our relationship with the Almighty is still the only game in town. Call it a snake if you want, but God is the one who sends it.
This can be compared to the difference between being single and being married. Sure, being married is hard work. It takes time and effort to be the giving, loving person that a healthy marriage demands. Sometimes it looks like hassle-free singlehood must be tons of fun. But is it really? Anyone in a happy marriage can tell you the answer in just one wink.
This, in essence, is the difference between Jewish history and the history of everyone else that has walked the earth. We married Him. We made 613 beautiful vows. When we behave in a way that honors that commitment, He treats us like a loving husband treats his wife. We are special, we are different, and we are protected. A life of Torah is a life of boundaries, the walls of a beautiful home where we share intimacy with our Beloved.
When we don’t honor that commitment and take steps to escape the spiritual obligations that bring us close to Him, He sadly allows us to experience the destitution, isolation, and spiritual poverty we have chosen. But he’s there waiting for us all along. Call it a snake, but it’s really just the Almighty saying, “I miss you. I love you. I want you back.”
An Urgent Truth
Jewish history is not an academic study of the rise and almost constant near collapse of a very unusual nation. It is the map of a relationship between a deeply loyal Lover and his adorable but impetuous wife as she grows up, matures, and slowly learns to appreciate the One she committed to at Sinai.
The Talmud in Pesachim 56a describes how Moshe’s copper snake, passed down through the generations, slowly turned into a cult idol. Instead of appreciating the Source of the snake’s powers and learning it’s message, later generations of Jews tried to circumvent the rigors of a meaningful relationship with the Almighty by worshipping the healing snake itself. King Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah) destroyed the snake, leaving them no alternative but to direct their focus back to the Almighty Himself.
Today we have no miraculous snakes and very few open miracles. We don’t have many blatant reminders about the hows and whys behind the fluctuations of history. We face terrorist attacks, freak pandemics, and poisons in the foods we eat. Eight million Americans suffer from anorexia and bulimia and 118 million anti-depressants are prescribed in America every year. We face the natural world in all its impersonal viciousness.
But Jewish history whispers an urgent truth. We can rise above these circumstances, individually to a large extent, and nationally completely, by grabbing onto a rope thrown from above. The Torah has never abandoned us, and never has the Almighty. He never will.