The Secret of Jewish Resilience

February 4, 2024

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once observed the remarkable resilience and enduring nature of Jewish people. In an unpublished document discovered after his death, Rousseau wrote:

The Jews provide us with an astonishing spectacle: the laws of Numa, Lycurgus, Solon are dead; the very much older laws of Moses are still alive. Athens, Sparta, Rome have perished and no longer have children left on earth; Zion, destroyed, has not lost its children…. What must be the strength of legislation capable of working such wonders, capable of braving conquests, dispersions, revolutions, exiles, capable of surviving the customs, laws, empire of all the nations…to last as long as the world?…any man whosoever he is, must acknowledge this as a unique marvel, the causes of which, divine or human, certainly deserve the study and admiration of the Sages, in preference to all that Greece and Rome offer.

What is the secret of the Jewish people? What makes Judaism so unique? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the answer lies in the pivotal event of the revelation at Mount Sinai, a defining moment in Judaism.

Unlike other religions that center their revelations around individuals, Judaism is unique in that God revealed Himself to an entire nation. This was not a message delivered to a lone prophet or a select group of elders, but a divine encounter experienced by every man, woman, and child in the nation of Israel. Revealing Himself in this way removed any shadow of doubt that the presence felt and the voice heard were not genuine. The people of Israel were acutely aware that what transpired at Sinai was unparalleled and unprecedented. Moses himself emphasized the enormity of the event, highlighting its singularity in human history (Deuteronomy 4:32–33)

However, Rabbi Sacks continues, the revelation at Sinai was not only significant because of its religious implications but also for its profound influence on the political landscape in three ways. First, it marked the formation of a new kind of nation and society that was the antithesis of oppressive regimes like Egypt. This new society, born at Sinai, was based on liberty and equality, principles that would later resonate in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The covenant at Mount Sinai laid the foundation for a society bound not by power, but by a shared moral code and a collective covenant with God.

The Hebrew Bible, rather than Greek philosophy, significantly influenced early thinkers and founders of modern democracy. Long before figures like Milton, Hobbes, and Locke, the concept of a free society was conceived at Sinai. This covenant set moral boundaries on power, establishing the primacy of justice over authority. This contrasted sharply with the Greek model of democracy, which was plagued by the potential for majority tyranny and the absence of protections for minority rights.

The revelation at Sinai also introduced the radical concept that legitimate governance requires the consent of the governed, a notion advanced even when the governor is the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Before God gave the Torah He told Moses to tell the people, “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the people, indeed, all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5). Only after the people responded as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8) did God proceed with the revelation. The revelation was contingent on the people’s explicit agreement, and without their affirmation, it could not advance further.

Finally, the covenant at Sinai was inclusive, encompassing every member of the nation, man, woman and child, a concept ahead of its time and one that predated the limited citizenship in ancient societies. This inclusivity set the stage for universal rights and participation, establishing the Torah as the first constitution of liberty that recognized every individual’s value.

The uniqueness of the Jewish people and their enduring legacy can be traced back to the momentous event at Sinai. The revelation was not just a spiritual awakening but also the birth of a new vision for society, one that cherished freedom, justice, and equality. Rousseau’s observation underscores the unparalleled strength and resilience of the Jewish People and Jewish law, a testament to the profound and lasting impact of the revelation at Sinai on the nation of Israel and the world at large.

 

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Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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