News about the Jews these days is dominated (for good reason) by negatives. Their homeland is threatened by an Islamist regime in Iran that openly seeks its destruction while rushing to acquire the means to do the job. Meanwhile, their other great population center in the United States slowly withers, lacking the confidence or will to do much about it.
Yet it’s worth taking a step back to wonder at the many miracles of contemporary Jewish life. A video posted recently by Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, is an opportunity to do just that.
Goldstein begins the video by quoting Yaakov Emden, an 18th century German rabbi, who wrote in a siddur he published that he considered the simple existence of the Jewish people in his own day a greater miracle than all those performed by God in the Exodus from Egypt. Why? Because the continued survival of a people thousands of years following its dispersion from its homeland and persecuted across the globe was a historical fact without precedent.
Emden lived in the period of the aftermath of the rise and fall of Shabbetai Tzvi, who for a brief period in the 17th century was hailed – likely by a majority of the world’s Jews – as the messiah. His ultimate forced conversion to Islam forced most of his many followers to reassess his significance, the entire episode representing perhaps the greatest collective spiritual crisis in Jewish history. The affair rose not long after (and was likely, as drawn immortally in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel Satan in Goray, influenced by) the Chmielnicki Massacre, a series of pogroms accompanying a nationalist uprising in the Ukraine that killed as many as 100,000 Jews and that stood, for 300 years, as the greatest collective murder of Jews in Europe.
Emden, in other words, had immediate reasons for feeling satisfied solely by continued Jewish survival.
As Goldstein notes, we today have our own reasons and many more of them. We are the generation that has merited to see the Jewish state reborn in the Land of Israel, and to watch it flourish culturally, economically, and scientifically in ways past counting. So too in an extraordinarily short period of time have we witnessed the explosive rebirth of a world of traditional Jewish learning decimated by the Holocaust.
Many Jews, especially those of the United States, may be put off by an Orthodox feel to the video. That quibble though shouldn’t rightly dissuade anyone from enjoying the video’s celebration of a Jewish era whose heights match any other.
For all the problems, the world today is witness to a perhaps unprecedented flourishing of one of its most ancient peoples. The festival of their original redemption should serve as an inspiration to all.