Sitting at the Seder this year, it's understandable that we Jews have more than the ancient Egyptians on our minds. Today we have good reason to be nervous once more about our survival.
An avowed enemy, making clear his intent to destroy us, is well on its way to having the nuclear capability to carry out his threat. In spite of the countless diplomatic efforts, the sanctions and the political pressure placed on the leadership of Iran, nothing appears to be swaying them from carrying out their version of the final solution.
Like Pharaoh, Ahmadinejad reflects the gravest danger, whose goal is not only to harm, but to totally destroy the Jewish people. And like Pharaoh, Ahmadinejad’s crime is so unimaginable that God promises to prevent it from happening.
Allow me to explain.
In the Passover story, the Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. They suffered for most of that time. Several generations were slaves. So what finally prompted God to appoint Moses and begin the process of redemption? What was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back?
The answer was symbolically given to Moses in his first dramatic encounter with God at the Burning Bush.
A simple reading of the story tells us that while tending his sheep in the desert of Sinai, Moses suddenly saw a bush that was engulfed in flames. Yet strangely enough, although the bush was burning, it was not consumed. That defies the laws of nature. Fire always destroys. Moses could not understand.
At this very moment, as Moses stood transfixed by the miracle before his eyes, God revealed himself and proclaimed, "I am the God of your fathers."
Superficially, the story seems to tell us that God performed this wondrous act to impress Moses before asking him to assume the mantle of leadership. God chose this sign so that Moses would grasp the meaning of Divine power. But this begs the question. Couldn't God have performed another miracle even more striking, more convincing, more indicative of his control over the entire world rather than just a single bush in the desert?
Rabbinic commentators supply us with a beautiful answer. God wasn't simply performing a miracle; He was sending a message. God knew what was uppermost in the mind of Moses. From the time he fled from Egypt and watched his brothers suffering under Pharaoh’s brutal oppression, Moses worried and wondered: Are my people still alive? And so the very first thing God did was to reassure Moses, not only for that time but for the future as well.
The bush burned but was not consumed. So too, the Jewish people will never perish.
The bush was a symbol of the Jewish people. The bush was burning but, against all laws of nature, it was not consumed. So too, the Jewish people, against all laws of history, would never perish. That was the Divine promise implicit in the first message that God gave to Moses at the dawn of his assumption of leadership.
The miracle of the Burning Bush was the graphic representation of the miracle of Jewish survival. When Arnold Toynbee completed The Study of History, his classic 10-volume analysis of the rise and fall of human civilizations, he was troubled by one seeming refutation of his universal rules governing the inexorable decline of every people on Earth. Only the Jews survived in defiance of Toynbee's carefully-reasoned analysis. So Toynbee proclaimed the Jews nothing more than "a vestigial remnant," a people destined to shortly expire.
But somehow, in spite of all those brutal attempts at our destruction, Jews have demonstrated the ongoing miracle of the Burning Bush.
Jewish history defies explanation. It is told that when King Louis XIV asked his resident philosopher, Pascal, whether he believed in miracles, Pascal replied that he did.
Surprised, the King then asked, "Give me an illustration of a miracle that justifies your belief."
"The Jews, your Majesty. The survival of the Jews – that is certainly a miracle."
The reason for this miracle is the Divine promise made long ago to our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This promise that assured our ancestors that their descendents would never perish; that their role in history to be "a light unto the nations" would remain in effect until the fulfillment of the messianic dream.
And that explains why God chose the particular moment for Moses to begin the miracle of the national redemption from Egypt. When Pharaoh’s plans turned from oppression to extermination and the potential for the demise of the children of Israel, God's deliverance was undeniable and inevitable.
As soon as Haman determined to murder all the Jews, men women and children, the Purim miracle was a foregone conclusion and Haman was doomed to hang on the gallows. The disappearance of the Jews from the world’s stage had to be prevented, no matter how unlikely the many coincidences required to bring about the Divinely-desired conclusion.
Responding to Danger
As we prepare to celebrate Passover, and as we again face a Pharaoh-like figure who seeks our destruction, we need to remember two crucial things: On the one hand, all those who seek to destroy us invite the same Divine wrath as wrought on the Egyptians who perished in the Red Sea. But on the other hand, we need to assure God that we deserve His intervention.
Whenever Jews are threatened, our response must be guided by repentance, prayer and charity.
In no way do I mean to minimize the danger of the current situation. Whenever we find ourselves threatened, our response must always be guided by the traditional threefold approach of repentance, prayer and giving of charity. The Hamans of history may by doomed to Divine destruction, but we must still do all in our power to mitigate the results of their evil by strengthening our commitment to God and to Torah.
We can be confident that God will not abandon us; He guarantees our collective survival. But individually, the existential threat is very real. There is genuine cause for fear, an alarming fear that should wake us up and stir sincere teshuva.
This Passover, when our joy is tempered by the ominous warnings from Israel's neighbors, let us gain hope (not apathy) from the words of a famous author who, although not Jewish, understood well the message of the Burning Bush. Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, a Christian best known for penning War and Peace, wrote in 1908:
A Jew is the emblem of eternity. He who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy. He who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He who was the first to produce the oracles of God. He who was been for so long the Guardian of prophecy and has transmitted to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.