My father, a psychologist, once attended a public lecture by a student of Freud named Dr. Reich. The presentation was to grapple with the peculiar fact that every major culture has in its historical record a facsimile of the Biblical Flood story. All recount a deluge that shrunk the Earth’s inhabitants into a very small cadre of survivors who then rebuilt. Reich hypothesized that there is a deep-seated fear of global annihilation that undermines humanity’s confidence in its own existence. People then project backwards to fashion a mythology mirroring their insecurity. Dad raised his hand and offered an alternative solution to the mystery.
“Perhaps,” he said, “there was a Flood.”
A tremor of shock rippled through the assemblage of mental health professionals. The ineffable had been uttered. The room was silent while the great man pondered. Finally he said this: “My teacher Freud told us that we will never know who is stronger, the polar bear or the tiger, because they can’t live in each other’s climate, so they can never meet. You and I are the polar bear and the tiger. In my world the possibility that a Flood occurred cannot be considered.”
As Passover begins, it is noteworthy that this is the most widely observed Jewish holiday. Yet the vast majority of those celebrants think it primitive to believe that the events it was instituted to commemorate actually occurred. They make haste to explain that they are feting the laudable sentiment of freedom as well as the notion of Jewish independence. Please don’t extrapolate from that an acceptance of the national historical record as rendered in Scripture. The idea that Jews emerged from slavery in Egypt as a people exactly 3317 years ago would be derided as absurd and obscurantist. And the further idea that they have a mission to the world to encourage it to be kinder, more just, and aware of a single omnipotent Deity is not merely ridiculous: it is elitist and self-serving and will only alienate the rest of humanity!
Historian Paul Johnson in his masterwork, History of the Jews, turns it around on the skeptics and points out how flimsy a position they must occupy. After he demonstrates with magnificent scholarship that “most of the intellectual and moral furniture” in the Western mind was laid out by the Jewish People, he points out that indeed they claimed to have been sent to do this from Day One.
The one who would scoff at the arrogance of the initial announced undertaking is now forced to write off its success as a coincidence. Usually in life, if someone tells you what he will do before he does it, it is sufficient to deliver results; we then accept the theory. And no experiment was ever undertaken in any laboratory involving billions of people over thousands of years in every corner of the globe: the amount of potential variables were well nigh infinite. Yet one small nation did all that after telegraphing its punch beforehand.
To me it seems that the greatest miracle ever achieved by Jews is the underappreciated one that we witness today. It is simply impossible for a nation to undergo a holocaust that kills six million out of about fourteen, severely traumatizes another two million, traps four or five million more in the slavery of the Soviet Union, and then accomplish what the Jews have in sixty years. They have their own country with the dominant army in its region, they have unprecedented levels of scholarship, both religious and secular, and maintain a powerful international presence in law, medicine, politics, science and art, not to mention business.
I repeat: it is IMPOSSIBLE! This cannot have happened. It goes against every predictive premise in history, sociology, science, and psychology. Yes, my friends, if you can believe that it happened now, as you must, don’t be afraid to believe our carefully preserved national tradition of what transpired — in the words of the liturgy — “in those days, at this time.”
The last word goes to George Washington, the father of our country, in his 1789 letter to the Jews of Savannah, Georgia:
“I rejoice that a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent today than it formerly was among the enlightened nations of the earth; and that your brethren will benefit thereby in proportion as it shall become still more extensive. Happily the people of the United States of America have, in many instances, exhibited examples worthy of imitation — the salutary influence of which will doubtless extend much further, if gratefully enjoying those blessings of peace which (under favor of Heaven) have been obtained by fortitude in war, they shall conduct themselves with reverence to the Deity, and charity towards their fellow-creatures.
“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors planted them in the promised land — whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation — still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people….”