When things are bleakest, continue fight for survival

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Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

Two jokes recently making the rounds provide perspective on the secret of Jewish survival. In the first, an observer provides a summary of Jewish history in nine words: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat!" While we may laugh at this oversimplification of Jewish resilience, there is some truth in this rather simplistic, yet sanguine, view of centuries of Jewish history.

Throughout the ages, tyrants tried to destroy the Jewish people. Not only did they not succeed, but Jews commemorated each victory with a holiday celebration and festival food.

Passover, with its distinctive unleavened foods, bitter herb and salt water, marks our ancestors' triumph over Pharaoh. Chanukah, championing the Hasmonean victory over the Assyrians, is celebrated with latkes in this country or jelly doughnuts in Israel. And Purim, recounting the foiled plans of Haman to destroy the ancient Persian Jewish community, is noted for its celebration, accompanied by laughter, drink, merrymaking to excess, and generous supplies of hamantaschen.

Although the joke summarizes Jewish survival in just a few words, it oversimplifies the seriousness of the threats Jews faced and the battles fought to stay alive. It does not provide any genuine insight into the hows and whys of Jewish survival.

A second joke provides a more astute, sober view of Jewish history, one that is reflected in Vaethanan, this week's Torah portion. A Jew on a mountain-climbing expedition lost his footing and began to slide over a precipice. As he slipped over the edge, he managed to grab hold of a branch of a gnarled tree growing out of the side of the cliff. He held on for dear life, seeing a drop of hundreds of feet below him. Knowing that he would not be able to hold on forever and with no help in sight, he began to pray: "O God, please save me, do not let me lose my grasp and be smashed on the rocks below." Suddenly, there came a reply: "Do not worry. Just let go of the branch; I will catch you and gently guide you to safe ground." The desperate man thought for a moment and then asked: "Is there anyone else I can talk to?"

The spirit of Vaethanan and the essence of Jewish survival are embodied in the second joke. In this portion, Moses reacts to being told that he will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land:

"I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 'O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.' But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter, again'" (Deuteronomy 3:23-26).

The image of Moses being unwilling to accept the divine decree provided rabbis and commentators with a springboard to discuss ways to reverse unacceptable circumstances. In this instance, Moses attempted several different approaches. First, he drew a circle around himself and refused to budge until God reversed the verdict. When that tactic did not work, Moses appealed to God's guilt.

Because of the difficulty he faced leading the cantankerous and ill-tempered Israelites, Moses believed that he should be rewarded with entrance into the Promised Land. Once again, God was unmoved. Next, Moses asked if he could be an animal or a bird and enter the Promised Land as one of those incarnations. Failing to remove God's decree, he finally asked if, at least, his bones could enter Israel — if he could not enter alive, he wanted to enter dead. Even that last request was denied, and the rabbis portrayed God gently kissing Moses, thereby taking his soul.

What secret of Jewish survival do we learn from the second joke and this Torah portion? Even when there is no way out, when things seem the bleakest, even when God says "no," never give up, never take "no" for an answer. While most times this may not reverse an unacceptable decree, at other times it will, and that success might make all the difference. That is the lesson of 4,000 years of history that every Jew would do well to heed.