May 19, 2024
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Am Yisrael Chai, From Up High

In our parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu pronounces praises to Hashem, perhaps famous to us as they are included in the first blessing of the amidah: the Great, Powerful and Awesome God (10:17). Although Moshe determined these praises to be fitting to attribute to Hashem, however, along the path of history, things perpetuated somewhat shakily in terms of uttering the full gamut of these praises.

In fact, the Gemara (Yoma 69b) states that upon Yirmiyah the Navi seeing “gentiles croaking in Hashem’s sanctuary”—upon witnessing the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and gentiles celebrating and dancing away in the ruins of Hashem’s sanctuary, Yirmiyah couldn’t relate to the “awesomeness” of Hashem. And as a result, he omitted the attribute of “awesome.” Later on in history, Daniel had a similar difficulty: Upon witnessing “gentiles enslaving His children,” Daniel couldn’t perceive Hashem’s attribute of “powerful.” And so, he omitted it. But finally, the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah came along and proclaimed just the opposite! The fact that Hashem demonstrates such “self control” by restraining Himself all these years that His people are subjugated —and the fact that He shows such patience to the wicked—that specifically shows His strength, His “powerfulness”! The fact that one sole nation survives amongst all the other nations of the world, that specifically shows Hashem’s “awesomeness”! Thus, they restored the entirety of the original establishment of those attributions that Moshe pronounced.

At first glance, it may seem like the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah are directly arguing about Yirmiyah and Daniel. However, the Maharsha explains that this is not the case. Rather, the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah were basing their opinion on personal experience; the experience that Yirmiyah and Daniel simply lacked at the time they made their decision. The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah reached a point in history where they experienced a greater spectrum of Hashem’s “hand,” His role and providence over the Jewish people. They saw how Hashem spared the Jewish people so many times—that on the brink of destruction, they yet prevailed. Surely this shows the strength and “power” of Hashem who has patience for their wicked enemies! Surely this shows His “awesomeness” that His nation continues to prevail through thick and thin!

The continuity of the Jewish nation is beyond an astounding phenomenon. The fact that such a minute (approximately 0.002% of the population) and despised nation lives on and thrives isn’t to be taken for granted. Being thrown out and flung from place to place, from country to country, one exile after the next.the amount of sufferings we’ve underwent nationally and individually, including blood libels, crusades, inquisitions, holocausts, and much more. Rav Yerucham Olshin quotes the Maharal who says that if all oceans of the world were ink, it would still not suffice to record all the sufferings that Am Yisrael has endured nationally and individually! Yet, we know, “Am Yisrael Chai”: we prevail and live on. Such a wondrous phenomenon surely attests to belief in God, and the “powerfulness” and “awesomeness” of Hashem who continues His people’s existence despite so much opposition.

In fact, Rav Yaakov Emden emphatically questions how anyone can deny God’s providence upon recognizing the miraculous continuity of the Jewish people. An “exiled nation” who underwent so much suffering for two thousand years from nations who tried to destroy and annihilate us out of hate and envy. There’s no nation in the world as pursued as we are. Yet, we’re here, intact, and so is our Torah. Those strong nations are gone, but we remain. They’ve perished, out of remembrance, but we’re alive. “To me,” concludes Rav Emden, “this wondrous phenomenon is even greater than all the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed in Egypt, in the desert, and in Eretz Yisrael! And the longer we’re in exile, the greater this continued miracle of our continuity becomes, and the more Hashem’s might and strength becomes apparent.” (Preface to “Siddur Beis Yaakov”).

Indeed, the reality of “Am Yisrael Chai” shows Hashem’s might and providence, and can be the greatest proof of God. Even the Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal, was asked by King Louis XIV for proof of God, and Pascal responded, “The Jews, your majesty; the Jews.” It’s our continuity through this long exile, and the terrible national and individual sufferings we’ve undergone and yet live on that shows there is certainly a being up high that created and runs the world.

In the Gemara quoted earlier, the Tosafot Yeshanim quotes a midrash where Emperor Hadrian said to R’ Yehoshua, “how great is the lamb (Am Yisrael) that survives among the seventy wolves (the rest of the nations)!” To which R’ Yehoshua retorted, “How great is the Shepherd (Hashem) who saves her!” One might think it’s our abilities and capabilities that carry us through, but ultimately it’s Hashem who does so. Like it says in the Pesach Haggadah, “…in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us, but Hashem saves us from their hands.” Specifically Hashem. And this continued phenomenon indeed shows how great the “Shepherd”—Hashem—is. The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah personally experienced that, and they therefore reinstated the attributes of powerful and awesome.

Mark Twain said, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

If one thinks it’s because of our abilities then one may in fact wonder what it could be: which strengths and capabilities are the key to our success? What’s the secret ingredient to our continuity? And maybe this is what Emperor Hadrian thought, thus giving the credit to the “lamb”—to the Jewish people. From the perspective of “great is the Shepherd who protects us”—that it’s Hashem from whom we are “chai,” from whom we “live on” to this very day—our immortality is easily understood. And hence, there’s no secret either: it’s out in the open, for our miraculous continuity declares obvious proof of God and His supervision over us and the world. Am Yisrael is indeed “chai,” and the credit goes to the One up high.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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