The Secret of Jewish Survival
Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )
Living up to our name, The People of the Book.
Throughout the ages, many have been amazed at the Jewish nation's survival. Faced with a history of suffering, sorrow, and persecution, Jews have met adversity with strong resilience and fortitude. What is our secret? How have we maintained our distinctness and unique traditions? What has been the key to thwarting assimilation into the cultures of the nations? We can find a solution in a thought from this week's portion.
Perhaps the most dramatic story in all of Torah takes place in our Parsha. After being sold by his brothers and having been away for 22 years from his family, Joseph reveals himself. The brothers had been unaware that the Emperor who has been tormenting them, accusing them of being spies, jailing Shimon, and potentially taking Benjamin as a slave, is actually Joseph.
When Joseph says the words, "I am Joseph!" (Genesis 45:3), the brothers are dumbfounded and speechless. Joseph comforts them with a long monologue and expresses his forgiveness. He also gives the brothers instructions to bring Jacob down to Egypt.
Towards the end of these instructions, Joseph gives the directive, "Do not become agitated on the way" (45:24). Rashi explains this cryptic statement: "Do not become involved in a matter of halacha, Jewish law, (so that you don't get lost) and the trip does not become a source of anger for you."
Imagine. The brothers have just faced the shock of their lives in meeting Joseph once again. Wouldn't the brothers be contemplating their fateful, incorrect decision to sell Joseph so many years ago? Yet, Joseph is concerned that they would concentrate on Torah study and lose their way back home! Joseph seems to assume that the brothers would naturally turn to Torah study during their travels.
While it is true that there is a Mitzvah to study Torah as you travel, (see the "Shema" Prayer, Deuteronomy 6:7, "You shall speak of them -- the Torah -- while you sit at home and while you walk on the way",) who would be able to study at a stressful time of soul searching?
In addition, now they had to go back and face their father, Jacob, to whom they lied about Joseph all of these years. How would they be able to have the presence of mind to study Torah at such a difficult time?
Very often in Jewish learning, the question is the answer. The more you think deeply about a question, the more you repeat the question in your mind, the more you begin to realize that the question itself leads directly to the answer. The same is true here.
How could the brothers learn Torah during such troublesome times? How could they not? We all have various methods of relaxation that we engage in when we are stressed out. Some of us watch or listen to a ball game, others may listen to music. Pious and learned Jews relax through the study of Torah. Even under tremendous pressure, it was only natural for the brothers to search for mental calm in Torah study.
This is especially true given that the Torah is God's instructions for Life and the brothers were searching for specific Divine guidance as to how to deal with their current travails. They would only find it in serious Torah study.
Torah study has united Jews throughout history and has saved us from assimilation. This is truly the secret of Jewish survival throughout the millennia. To paraphrase Rabbi Saadia Gaon of the 11th century, the Jewish nation is only a nation and can only be a nation as a result of the Torah. We are not a nation based on land, language, or culture. If ever there would be a time when Jews would stop caring about the wisdom in the Torah, we would cease to be a nation and would quickly disappear to assimilation.
Amazingly, the Torah itself provides for its own continuity. The world at large has only begun to value education and literacy for the masses relatively recently, around 200 years ago, with the system of free public education. Until then, education was viewed solely as a pursuit for the elite of society. Many religions had special interest in keeping the masses uneducated so as to avoid questioning in their faiths.
Jewish education for the masses, however, goes back to the Revelation at Sinai. 3000 years ago, God commanded us to study Torah every day of our lives. Of course, in order to study, every single Jew had to know how to read and write. So, basic mass education was guaranteed. Torah study and intellectual pursuit was and remains our lifeblood from our very inception as a nation.
We want educated Jews. We do not fear or discourage questioning and discussion of our faith and tradition.
It is only if we are engaged in serious and consistent Torah study that wecan live up to our name, 'The People of the Book.'