Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881) was once confronted by a political opponent who chided him about being Jewish. “Indeed,” he responded “I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages on an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon”
In these difficult days for the State of Israel and the increase of anti-Semitic statements by some world leaders, it is time that we remind ourselves of Disraeli’s response.
The famous Chassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said: “In remembering is the secret of redemption.” This, indeed, is a crucial message for all Jews under siege. It is only in the recognition of our unprecedented past that we are able to draw the strength to build a future and confront our enemies. Moshe taught us this as he told his people just before they entered the land of Israel: “Remember the days of old, consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will explain to you” (Devarim 32:7).
Moshe was sending a strong message to all Jews in all generations telling them that they would only be able to hold onto their land as long as they recalled their history, which created their reason for existence.
Indeed the Jews have more history than any other nation, but it is a history of quality and not of quantity. It is not the heroic deeds of the gladiators or the astonishing victories of armies but the moral accomplishments of men of faith that made this people into the oldest of nations. While it often had to fight physical battles for its very existence, it never lost sight of the fact that all this would be meaningless if not for the nation’s spiritual wealth. This was its pride and its honor.
The gentile author, Lyman Abbott, once wrote: “We gentiles owe our life to Israel. It is Israel who brought us the message that God is one…It is Israel who in bringing us the divine law, has laid the foundation of liberty…It is Israel who brought us our Bible, our prophets and our apostles…” (quoted in R. J. H. Hertz, a Book of Jewish Thoughts, Oxford University Press)
Leroy Beaulieu added to that: “As compared with the Jews, we are young, we are new-comers; in the matter of civilization they are far ahead of us. It was in vain that we locked them up for several hundred years behind the walls of the ghetto. No sooner were their prison gates unbarred than they easily caught up with us even on those paths which we had opened up without their aid.” (ibid.)
When observing world Jewry’s spiritual condition and the general atmosphere in the state of Israel today, it looks like many Jews have forgotten who they are and what their mission is all about. It is as if they have lost their past and are no longer able or even interested in learning about their roots for the sake of their spiritual quality. More and more they have given up remembering and, consequently, the very idea of redemption becomes impossible. In many schools in Israel, Israel’s spiritual past is scoffed at and only studied as a remembrance of Jewish antiquity. Israeli society tries to find its reason for existence in technology, secular academia and a flourishing economy. But the more it succeeds in doing so, the more it loses the ground under its feet.
Long before nations started to speak about discovering their “roots,” Judaism acknowledged the need for Jews to recognize theirs. There is no survival or future without a mission, and no mission can survive without the belief in one’s uniqueness, which is the product of one’s “root experiences” in the past.
The secular call for extreme universality, so often heard in the halls and lecture rooms of Israel’s universities, will ultimately lead to the end of Israel’s meaningful existence. Only in the realization of one’s genuine “otherness’ one is able to be of help to others. This pride is not aimed at inflating one’s sense of importance, to confer more privileges, or to create a nation of a “blue-blooded” elite, but on the contrary, it is a reason for imposing more obligations and restrictions.
It is a most powerful expression in Yiddish that conveys this message in three words: “Es past nicht,” it does not suit a Jew to do such things. The feeling of a mission and responsibility made certain deeds impossible and abhorrent in the eyes of the Jew. It was Jewish pride and not a feeling of carrying a burden which made the Jew enjoy restraining himself.
The State of Israel is encountering more crime within its own nation, more drug addiction, and more abuse than ever before. It is the lack of mission that is causing people to destroy themselves. No punishment, no law, no police enforcement will solve this problem. Only when the notion of “Es past nicht” will return to the vocabulary of Israelis will there be hope. Only then will redemption come closer.