Mark Twain famously admired the Jewish People’s survival through the ages. The empires of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all rose and fell, yet the Jewish People endured.
What, he wondered, was the secret to Jewish immortality?
R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests a compelling answer. It’s about the desert wilderness the fourth book of the Torah is named for – במדבר – the location of three-quarters of the Torah’s stories, where the Jewish People accepted the Torah and formed a covenant with God, lived on miraculous manna and water, while sheltered under divine cloud cover.
For every other nation and culture in history, what brought people together was land, not law. People first formed settlements, then small groups, then villages, and then built towns and cities. As the groups grew, they became unstable and developed legal systems to resolve uncertainties – first the land, then the law. Unique to the Jewish People is the phenomenon that the law precedes the land, and it transforms the expected trajectory of Judaism by making it non-contingent. When a nation is exiled and dispersed, it doesn’t typically survive; Judaism has spent most of its history in the diaspora – not sovereign in Israel.
And it has a lot to do with the fact that the Torah was given in a deserted wilderness.
At that moment, the Jewish People were constituted, long before they ever saw the land; so they could survive, identity intact, without it. As only R’ Jonathan Sacks could put it – the law came before the land; so even when the Jews lost the land, they still had the law. Without geography, there was still history.
Pagan worship often revolves around natural life cycles and ecosystems, to which the desert wilderness is inhospitable, teaching the essential lesson that the One God exists in the emptiness too.
This understanding inverts our expectation of the exilic trope of the wandering Jew. We arguably don’t practice a majority of the Torah in exile – the laws of the Temple, the laws of the Land, the laws of government, or the laws of holiness and purity, among others. Exile is not ideal. And all the same, we can thrive.
We see this played out in multiple ways.
Our ancestor Yakov was the final prototype for the Jewish people and is the archetype for life on the run. When Yakov leaves home for the first time, Rashi comments that his even with his departure, and even in his sleep, the sanctity of the land went with him – it was contingent on him, not where he found himself. He fled from home, from Lavan, from Esau, and then from Israel. Yet he transitions ever upwards, and it all happens on the go, casting off a former identity and emerging anew, foreshadowing the journey his children through the ages would have to take.
The very notion of the Mishkan – a portable temple – embodies the idea that we can create holiness on the move, and it reinforces the idea that the law before the land means that the law without the land is not lesser. If we can live with God in the middle of nowhere, we can live with God anywhere.
It’s the underlying theme of the Purim story as well – in the moments we think we’re most alone, God is by our side every step of the way, no less than when He seems closer. You may have to search a bit, but God doesn’t vanish on us.
The law precedes the land. The model to survive, perhaps even thrive, is placed before us long before we are tested – the antidote before the venom. On a far deeper level, it even precedes Creation – it comes before everything else.
None of this is to say that it’s easy to persevere in difficult times – it most certainly is not. There is no shortage of moments in Jewish history where it took all people had only to scrape by, at times physically, other times spiritually, and on occasion both. There is no shortage of moments where people were lucky to make it out alive. Our circumstances can be cruel, and that pain is genuine, so we mustn’t callously dismiss it.
Yakov’s life was fraught with pain and strife, and mortal danger was a looming spectre over his family throughout. The Jews fought Moshe and struggled to live in the wilderness from beginning to end. The Jews in the Purim story came perilously close to a genocide that was averted at the very last. If anyone says it’s easy – it’s assuredly not.
We don’t choose our circumstances, and sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. On a national level, the exile has been going on for a while. But the law precedes the land. Sure, we yearn for redemption every day, hoping for a time we can practice the Torah in full. But this is where we are right now, and life today isn’t worth a smidge less than it could be – so long as we’re doing the best we can. If we’re doing everything within our power, what more could God possibly ask of us? Perfection describes a process, not an outcome.
Channeling our ancestor, the archetype of Yakov, we can shine through pain and exile – not just surviving, but perhaps even thriving.
There are times we feel lost, scared, and alone. Sometimes the only real choice we have is whether we can even keep going at all. It’s real, and it’s hard! But we do have the capacity – הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says we’ll try again tomorrow. It’s up to us.