March 23, 2006

The Secret to our Survival
By Irwin Huberman

What is it about Judaism that has enabled it to survive for
thousands of years, in spite of constant prejudice, harassment and

Since our inception, Jews have been under attack, both in Israel,
and throughout the world. How could any religion withstand such
pressure over such a prolonged period?

In fact, the odds have been so stacked against the Jewish people,
the Talmud tells us that potential converts must be warned when first
approaching a rabbi ‘that Israel at the present is persecuted and
oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions.’ (Yabamot
47a-b) Those words, recorded almost two thousand years ago, were true
then, and continue to resonate today.

So what is the secret formula that leaders and followers among other
religions have sought for centuries? And are there lessons that Jews of
today can learn, as we grapple with the issues of assimilation and

The secret of survival is no secret after all. It is contained in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo.
Scholars and historians continue to be amazed exactly how the Jewish
people had remained together throughout 400 years, to exit Egypt as a
cohesive group.

Midrash provides the answer. Israel became a nation in Egypt because
it remained distinct from the Egyptians. As it is said: Israel deserved
the Exodus from Egypt because they did not change their names, did not
abandon their language, did not engage in evil talk and retained their

They did not change their names: they came to Egypt as
Reuven and Shimon, and as Reuven and Shimon they left Egypt. Reuven did
not become Rufus, Judah did not become Julian, Joseph did not become
Justus and Benjamin did not become Alexander. ‘Shir HaShirim
Rabba 4:24

Remaining distinct from other peoples is not always popular. We live
in societies where there is tremendous pressure to conform. The use of
Hebrew is often questioned in our prayers, as we attempt to modernize
our religious practices.

Jacob’s descendants survived their exile in Egypt because they
refused to succumb to the pressures of assimilation. Use of traditional
Hebrew names and language helped them preserve their identity.
Thousands of years later, we still cling to our Biblical names, and to
our L’shon ha-Kodesh, our holy language. We maintain our names
when called up to the Torah, and we value Hebrew as a conversational
and academic language.

Whether we believe that the words of the Torah originate from the
‘mouth of God,’ or we maintain that the Torah was gathered by highly
spiritual and learned redactors, there is no doubt that our ability to
maintain our identity against the odds is based upon thousands of years
on a common culture, a common language and common values.

The Torah, our primary book of record, is clear that the key to the
collective survival of the Jewish people is connected to the Torah and
its commandments. As the Torah states, ‘choose life, if you and your
offspring would live.’ (Deuteronomy 30:19)

In Parashat Bo, we are instructed to tell the Exodus story to our
children. (Exodus 10:2) We are told to treasure our freedom, and to
never forget where we came from. Our passion for life and liberty
should serve as a light to others, and we should reflect on our humble
beginnings as we strive to develop a more perfect world.

We must also remember Moses’ response in Parashat Bo, when Pharaoh
initially offers to let only the Jewish men leave Egypt. Moses counters
in defiance. ‘We will go with our young and with our old.’ (Exodus 10:9)

Moses could have agreed to leave some of B’nai Yisrael
behind, but he didn’t. Moses understood that while our joy and future
rest with our youth, our traditions are stored within the memories and
wisdom of our elders. Within Judaism, young and old form a partnership
with God, and this has sustained us since Egypt.

Our modern Western heritage is a wonderful thing and there is much
room to merge both our national and our spiritual ideals. We know
America will survive only by focusing on its values. As a Jewish
people, we must do the same’in our homes, in our synagogues and within
the wider community. Judaism’s quest to become more accessible must be
balanced by tradition; the same tradition that has protected and
sustained the Jewish people in spite of the odds. The secret to our
survival is no real secret.

The Jewish people are on a holy journey with God to build a perfect
world full of joy and blessings. Torah is our vehicle. As always, and
perhaps now more than ever, we hold the keys in our hands: language,
identity, ethics and tradition.