by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
As a nation, we've been through quite a bit. So many have persecuted us and have sought our annihilation - the ancient Egyptians, the Phillistines, The Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Cossacks and countless others- to this very generation. But despite all of this we have survived and thrived and they are all extinct. What is the secret to our survival?
In the year 1946, just a few months after the conclusion of the darkest years in Jewish History, 2 men - Rabbi Shmuel Abba Snieg and Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Rose - both survivors of both the notorious Kovno ghetto and the Dachau concentration camp sent word to the man in charge of the American occupied zone - commanding General Joseph McNarney - that they had an urgent request. Urgent requests were not uncommon in that time and place with so many refugees trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the holocaust, but this request would be different. It was a request that would move the general at his core. What was it that they asked for? Not food, not medical supplies, not better living conditions - all of which they could have done very well with. They asked if they could reprint the Talmud - the great compendium of all Jewish Knowledge - under the auspices of the American Army of Occupation. Now, surely there were more pressing issues and worries on the minds of these survivors at the time - of anything that they could have requested from this mighty general - to urgently ask to reprint a few books?
In 1953 someone wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe asking your very question - what is it that has caused the Jew to survive in the face of all the enemies and hatred that we have faced? What is the secret of our survival?
The Rebbe responded with an analogy of his own: When a scientist seeks to ascertain the laws governing a certain phenomenon - whether it be in medicine, in understanding the natural world or anything else, he must undertake a series of experiments under the most varied conditions in order to discover those properties or laws which pertain under all conditions alike. Only by studying his experiment under very differing conditions can he find which components are the variables and which are the constants - which change and which remain the same under all conditions alike.
The same principle should be applied to our people. It is one of the oldest in the world, beginning its national history from the Revelation at Mount Sinai, some 3300 years ago. In the course of these long centuries - our people have lived under extremely varied conditions, in most different times and different places all over the world. And let's face it - as people we are very different from each other - Jews always differed from one another in custom, garment, tongue, intelligence, affluence and general background. These are all the variables. If we wish to discover the essential elements making up the cause and very basis of the existence of our people and its unique strength, we must conclude that it is not its peculiar physical or intrinsic mental characteristics, not its tongue, manners and customs (in a wider sense), nor even its racial purity(for there were times in the early history of our people, as well as during the Middle Ages and even recent times, when whole ethnic groups and tribes have become proselytes and part of our people).
The constant, fixed and essential element which has always united us as a single nation, throughout our dispersion and regardless of time, is the Torah. Because no matter where Jews lived and no matter how their background and conditions varied from other Jews - the one thing that remained constant throughout, the thing which remained the same throughout all the ages and in all places was that we were always the people of the book, constantly studying the Torah and living with its guidance. Throughout the ages, Torah study was never reserved for the scholars - the Torah is referred to as - "Moirasha Kehillas Yaakov" - the inheritance of every single Jew - and that is why Torah learning was always available for the masses. Historians point out that in the dark ages in Europe where less than 2% of the general population could read, less than 2% of Jews couldn't read! The scientific evidence is clear - It is Torah study and its ways which made our people indestructible on the world scene in the face of massacres and pogroms aiming at our physical destruction, and in the face of ideological onslaughts of foreign cultures aiming at our spiritual destruction.
With this insight we can begin to understand the urgency and significance behind the request that those surviving rabbis, made of the American General in the occupied zone in 1946. Having somehow been able to survive the shadows of death, these men were intent on showing that "the constant" was still strong, the Torah had survived and thereby the Jewish people would always survive.
Reprinting the Talmud was no simple task - even after the General was persuaded it was an uphill battle - mainly because after the war there was not a single complete set of the Talmud to be found in the entire Europe - something which in itself relates to us the magnitude of the destruction! - but they were intent on doing it because this printing represented the indestructibility of the Jewish people.They eventually succeeded in their mission, printing the entire Talmud in a Munich printing press that had been the main printing press for Nazi propaganda just a few years earlier. They expressed their intent clearly in the short words of dedication, appearing in the inner cover of the first volume - part of which reads as follows:
This special edition of the Talmud published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah...During our overlong exile, our holy books were burned once and again by monarchs and governments. This is the first time in the long history of the Jewish people, that a government has helped us to publish the books of the Talmud, which are our life and length of days.
Their intent was further expressed in the unique front page of this Talmud (see above picture) - which on the bottom of the page shows a picture of darkness, Jews in a death camp loading bodies onto a cart and then on the top has a picture of a bright Jerusalem - with the words quoting from the Passover Haggada -"from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light." And then at then at the bottom they quote the powerful words uttered by King David in his book of Psalms - "they almost obliterated me from from the land but I never forgot your Torah". These words of King David sum it all up - the reason that it was always "almost" but that we are as a nation are indestructible is because we never forgot the Torah, the constant has always remained firm.