“In Every Generation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Although the scheduled Torah portion for this week is Acharei Mot, I would like to dwell on the theme of Passover, since the festival begins immediately after Shabbat, on Saturday night, April 23rd.

As Jews have done for more than a millennium, we will once again raise our cups and recite at our Passover seders the “V’hee sheh’amda“–a declaration stating that the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people has stood loyally for our forefathers and for us. “Sheh’lo eh’chad bil’vad ah’mahd ah’lay’noo l’chah’lo’tay’noo… v’Ha’ka’dosh Baruch Hoo mah’tzee’lay’noo mee’yah’dam.” Time and again, the nations rise up and try to destroy us, but each time the Al-mighty saves us from our enemies’ hands.

How unfortunate it is that this ancient declaration about the enemies of the Jewish people rising up to destroy us in every single generation is still true and palpable today. Mattis Kantor, a Chabad Rabbi from Australia, has written a very useful summary of Jewish history entitled the Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia, in which he demonstrates that in virtually every age and every generation, the nations of the world tried to destroy a Jewish community somewhere, and not infrequently, all Jewish communities everywhere.

The following thumbnail summary of Jewish history should drive home the point:

The enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt that began in the year 1430 BCE was followed in the year 1312 BCE, by Amalek’s attack on the feeble, the old and the children. In the year 586 BCE Nebuchadnezer destroyed the first Temple and less than 70 years later Haman tried to annihilate the entire Jewish community in all 127 provinces of Achashverosh’s kingdom. It was in the year 167 BCE, that Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks outlawed the practice of Judaism, and in 70 CE, Titus and the Roman legions destroyed the second Temple. Many thousands of Jews were killed when the Bar Kochba rebellion ended in defeat in the year 133 CE, and the Romans refused to allow the Jews to bury their dead. The rise of Islam in the early 7th century led to the persecution of many thousands of Jews throughout the Arabian peninsula. In 1095 CE, Pope Urban urged Christians to launch the first of several crusades to free Jerusalem from the Muslims, during which tens of thousands of Jews were tortured and murdered. In the Middle Ages, the Jews were expelled from England, France, Hungary, Austria, Spain and Portugal. In 1648, the Cossacks in the Ukraine, led by Bogdan Chmelnitski, massacred the Jews by the tens of thousands. And finally, of course, in the years 1939 through 1945 six million Jews were annihilated throughout Europe by Hitler and his Nazis hordes.

One would have thought that after the Holocaust a contrite world would have put an end to Jewish hatred and anti-Semitism. No such thing! Soon after, the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab countries started attacking and terrorizing the fledgling State of Israel, attacks that continue to this day.

And yet, the Jewish people survive!

The Jewish people’s survival is one of the most profound anomalies of history. The famed historian Arnold Toynbee called the Jewish people a “fossil of civilization” and could not comprehend why the Jews had not disappeared from off the face of the earth long ago. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Canaanites, Romans, Greeks, Angles and Saxons no longer exist. Only the Jews survive. Not in large numbers, to be sure, but survive they do.

But more than our external enemies, the greater danger that lurks for the Jewish people has frequently been the internal enemy–assimilation and apostasy. Some students of history have calculated that, despite the attacks, the massacres and the pogroms, given the fact that the Jews constituted about 10% of the ancient Roman empire at the beginning of the first millennium, there should be about 500 million Jews in the world today. Where are they? Unfortunately, they have disappeared largely due to assimilation and intermarriage.

How tragic it is that we Jews who have survived the most brutal and pernicious attacks of our enemies, allow ourselves to be destroyed through indifference and lack of commitment. In the year 1940 the rate of intermarriage in the United States was “only” 6%. By 1990 it had soared to 52%! We have lost far more people to the blandishments of outside culture than we have to the swords and brutal weapons of our enemies. Every few years we reach a new level of shocking indifference. Today, we have reached a point in American Jewish life where there is no longer any sense of shame for those who choose to marry outside of the faith. One need only read the weekly society columns to see that the most noted and venerated Jewish families proudly announce their children’s intermarriages without a shred of shame or guilt.
How tragic it is that while G-d’s covenant has stood by us–we Jews have not stood by G-d’s covenant? When our enemies rise up and try to destroy us, G-d somehow saves us. But when we consciously allow ourselves to disintegrate, G-d does not intervene–because He has given us free choice. And so perhaps the holiday of Passover that is widely known as the “Festival of Redemption” should be renamed the “Festival of Self-Redemption.” Perhaps we need to realize that while G-d has taken us out of Egypt, Egypt has not necessarily been taken out of us. The time has come for the Jewish people to firmly acknowledge that all of the matzoh balls and all of the macaroons will not save us from extinction unless we add to our gastronomical delights a serious “spiritual diet” of learning and Jewish education.

This is the challenge of Passover for us in the 21st century. And although things seem grave and bleak for us at this moment, they were even graver and bleaker for the ancient Israelites in Egypt before the exodus. It worked then, and it will work now. Let us not despair, for there is still hope, great hope, that G-d will redeem us, if we first redeem ourselves.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you and yours a joyous Pessach!