Sunday, December 28, 2014 Tevet 6, 5775

It's Up to the Jews to Protect Judaism

March 13, 2008 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman
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I've played it on two continents and answered the questions wrong in two languages. It's a television game show called "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" -- and, yes, it's already in Israel.

So let's play. The category is fifth-grade American history.

Question: What do these famous people -- Richard Johnson, George Dallas and William King -- have in common? And yes, I said "famous."

These people wielded -- or potentially wielded -- enormous global power. Give up? They were our nation's ninth, 11th and 13th vice presidents, respectively.

Though the position of vice president is routinely relegated to irrelevance, it is inarguable that the holder of this office is just one heart beat away from being the most powerful person in the globe. And yet, I hazard a guess that you never heard of these aforementioned vice presidents. They've been consigned to the recesses of history.

And now, the Jews.

At an, infinitesimal one-quarter of 1 percent of the world's population, "Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of," wrote Mark Twain, "but he is heard of, has always been heard of ... and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the bulk of his size."

The first historic testimony from a non-Jewish source for the existence of the Jewish people appears on a black granite chronicle called a stele housed in the Cairo Museum. It's called the Merneptah stele after the 13th century B.C.E. Egyptian pharaoh. On it was recorded a virtual litany of his military conquests.

Yet when historians encountered the following line, they were fascinated and piqued. Couched within this elaborate panegyric to Merneptah's military prowess is the boast that "Israel is laid waste, her seed is no more." Is it not intriguing, if not ironic, that the first historical non-Jewish document about the Jewish people is an obituary?

From Merneptah to Mein Kampf, Amalek to Antiochus, Haman to Hitler, Chmielnicki to Khomeini, Achashverosh to Ahmadinejad -- there have been endless attempts at writing the epitaph of the Jewish people.

This Shabbat is special; it is already referred to in our Mishnah (circa 180 C.E.) as Shabbat Zakhor -- the Sabbath of Remembrance. No other people is as consumed with the notion of remembering as the Jews. No other people is as intoxicated with its imperative.

No, Jews don't live in the past; rather, as Elie Wiesel has written, "the past lives in us."

This Shabbat, we conclude the Torah reading with a reminder about our history's first intended author of our genocide. His name was Amalek. Amalek was a person, a nation and a concept. He is the architect and archetype par excellence of anti-Semitism.

But it's worth noting that the Torah has two approaches when dealing with Amalek, and they both warrant our attention. One text concludes with God promising: "I will eradicate Amalek," and the other text concludes with the admonition to the Jewish people: "You will eradicate Amalek." So which is it?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik resolved this contradiction. The Torah is admitting of two scenarios. When it comes to our physical survival -- when the Amaleks and Hamans of the world attempt to write our obituary notice -- God has promised to protect the Jewish people. Even against the fact of our historic dislocations and exiles, Inquisitions and a Holocaust, the Jewish people will survive.

But when it comes to our spiritual survival, when our ideals and faith are assailed and assaulted, God says: "Jewish people, take ownership; be the protagonists; be proactive." As Rabbi Soloveitchik so piquantly taught, "God will see to it that Jews survive. Jews have to see to it that Judaism will survive." 

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