The Jewish people have a knack for surviving, even in the face of great odds. Sometimes, however, it seems as if that is our only goal.
In the Torah portion for this week (Vayigash), Joseph, having grown in power and influence in Egypt after his brothers left him for dead in the desert many years before, now reveals his true identity to his assembled siblings. While his remorseful brothers are in a state of disbelief about his unexpected and seemingly miraculous reappearance, Joseph tries to reassure them and assuage their guilt.
“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on Earth,” Joseph informs them, “and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:7-8). There is a terrible famine in the land of Canaan, and Joseph, seeing this all as part of a divine plan to ensure his family’s (and thus his people’s) survival, encourages them to escape the impact of the famine by settling in Goshen. The story of the Jewish people has barely begun, and already survival itself has become a primary focus — and will be so throughout Jewish history.
Unfortunately, a kind of “survivalist” mindset will follow — and I would argue plague — the Jewish people for many centuries to come, one that disproportionately and even corrosively focuses on all those forces arrayed against us that threaten our survival. While there have been real and serious threats to Jewish survival, an almost single-minded preoccupation with them, even when we have not been under siege, has damaged the way that Jews have looked at the world — and at ourselves. We have been too often in a seemingly perpetual state of crisis, deeply focused on our numbers and a narrative that is both misguided and unhealthy.
Salo Baron, the great Jewish historian, opposed what he referred to as the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history. According to this narrative — which Baron thought was as prevalent as it was false — the history of the Jewish people is nothing but a series of calamities and tragedies that have threatened our survival, one after the other after the other.
A colleague of mine recently attended an annual gathering of the philanthropic leaders of the North American Jewish community. She was shocked by the level of fear (and even reactionary tone) that permeated the multiday event. Speakers and participants alike were consumed with and distressed by issues that they felt threatened the very survival of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide: the conflict in Gaza, European anti-Semitism, anti-Israel trends on college campuses, low affiliation rates at Jewish institutions, high intermarriage rates and the like.
Though so many Jewish leaders are worried about our future, our past suggests that we will be just fine. Our well-being as a people is not about numbers, and it never has been. Devotion, not distribution, has always been our hallmark, and greatest strength, as a people.
Two thousand years ago, in the small village of Yavneh, a group of rabbis boldly transformed the Temple-based religion they had inherited into the Judaism we observe today — and they did it without being paralyzed by the trauma of the Roman siege and sack of Jerusalem. While a tiny and, at times, oppressed minority of the general population, the Jews of Muslim Spain generated a Golden Age during which some of our most important and innovative Jewish thinkers, mystics and poets emerged and influenced medieval society for generations. And in the face of poverty and pogroms, Jews in Eastern Europe created the spiritual and joyous Hasidic movement, a movement that was led by a small band of itinerant preachers and teachers.
Size doesn’t matter. What matters is creativity, courage and commitment. Our national and communal narrative should not be one of fear and crisis, but of triumph and redemption.
What best defines us as a community of faith has always been qualitative rather than quantitative. Jews have encountered many obstacles over the centuries, and we have always surmounted them, through a balance of fidelity and innovation. To take a seasonal example (associated with the celebratory and miraculous festival of Hanukkah), Judah Maccabi and his band of brothers — a miniscule guerilla force compared to the mighty Hellenist army — defeated their occupiers and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem because of their imaginative, unconventional tactics, as well as their fierce determination.
That is the real miracle we should reflect on at this time of year, and a central message of our history — the fact that we can evolve as a people and a religion, not in spite of our challenges, but often because of them.
Niles Elliot Goldstein is the director of development for the Center for Interfaith Engagement and the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan. He is also the award-winning author or editor of 10 books, including “Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith.”