by Sy Schechtman

Ever since Mt. Sinai Jews have lived with the most uncomfortable burden ever—the yoke, or burden of the Torah. About 613 negative and positive commandments, Thou shalt’s and thou shalt nots, and all the the glorious, momentous , fretful doings that led up to that most awesome revelation in human history. Rabbinic midrash states that God first offered these precious commandments of ethical, moral and spiritual conduct to the neighboring pagan tribes who were the Jews opponents in the Promised Land of Canaan, but they all demurred, claiming that the prohibitions against murder, adultery, robbery, slander, lying, etc. ,were integral parts of their codes of conduct to to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, thanks, but no thanks! The Jews on the other hand were immediately grateful, "We will do and we will obey!"

Historically God offered this signal covenant to his Chosen People about three thousand years ago and ever since the Jews have struggled to live up to its strenuous requirements. Prayer three times a day, dietary limits that proscribe many common foods (kasruth), male circumcision, marriage within the tribe, and all those commandments (mitzvoth) that make one a more holy person, that you are, among many other things, your brother’s keeper, and will do nothing that is hurtful to him that is hurtful to you. And one day, the Sabbath, of rest from normal work, given over to prayer, rest and contemplation.

It is lamentably true, historically, that the Jews had second thoughts about their initial enthusiasm, and as the Biblical text avers, many times went "whoring after other gods". Indeed, that as the Biblical story line unfolds, as Maurice Samuels, a well known biblical commentator of the last century details, "the Jews found God, ..lost God…..found God again and again…." One of the central tenets of the Jewish Bible is this backsliding, which becomes the key feature of the prophetic denunciations of Israel as the explanation of the largely negative course of ancient Jewish history after Solomon’s time when the small but relatively influential empire dissolved in virtual civil war. It is never a sign of God’s impotence that the Jews have suffered; it is rather a sign of God’s impatience with his "stiff necked Jews" who continually violate the covenant the Lord made with them at Sinai ( and even before and after). "Now then, if you obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" But if you violate the covenant you are subject to God’s wrath. "the Lord will let loose against you calamity, panic and frustration in all the the enterprises you undertake

so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me" And, elsewhere In Deuteronomy, "…the sins of the father shall be visited on the children unto the fourth generation……"

Throughout the long ancient history of Israel, before the final dissolution of the Jewish state and the scattering of the Jews in the diaspora, God has always been pictured as in control of events. And selecting the international agent to wreck havoc among the intransigent Jews . "Ha! Assyria, rod of My anger! In whose hand, as a staff, is my fury! I send him against an ungodly nation, I charge him against a people that provokes Me, To take its spoil and seize its booty, And to make it a thing trampled like the mire of the streets……Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her images what I did to Samaria and her idols?" The Jews are the guilty ones and God is portrayed as weeping silently and waiting patiently for His Jews to repent and reform, for in that day, as the prophet Isaiah states, their guilt will be expiated… "Comfort Ye, comfort ye, My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, And declare to her that term of service is over, her iniquity is expiated; For she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins." And the Jews will then, morally cleansed and properly repentant, and returned to God’s grace once more, yet be a great and prosperous nation.

History shows, however, that their return from exile was not exactly a glamorous or overwhelming success. Rather like the surviving Jewish holocaust victims of today trying to reclaim their homes in Jedwabne Poland recently where unfriendly Poles forcefully intimidated those Jews trying to repossess their property. It took several centuries for the Jewish state to begin flourish again as exiles finally left in significant numbers the relative comfort of the diaspora in Babylonia, and came "home" again. But the Prophetic insistence that the Jewish misfortunes were appropriate and God ordained and were only temporary--- pending omnipotent God’s rescinding His just decrees of punishment --- was like a lifeline of continuous hope in a surrounding morass of currently sad events in what was left of the initially postage stamp size land of Judea, whose only obvious asset was the partially rebuilt temple. Somehow "God was still in his heaven and all was right with the world". The all powerful God of the Jews who had intervened in storied fashion from the miracles of Egyptian liberation, the splitting of the Reed Sea, the manna, in the desert, etc. etc. was still in place on His rightful heavenly throne caring for and forgving his sinful flock. And thus a saving remnant gradually began what was to be the stock of the future Jewish nation, guilt ridden but determined to now keep to the core of God’s commandments.

Somehow these Jews whom the biblical prophets had inveighed against had learned to be stalwart and upright, taking their Torah straight and not worming "through the loopholes" as is were. But, most importantly,emending and amending it with the oral tradition as necessity and events of the current time dictated, thus allowing for the growth of rabbinic Judaism and the Talmudic changes later on .And even though a tiny fraction, probably a few hundred thousand at most when returning from the Babylonian exile in about 400BCE, by the beginning of the Common Era--four centuries later -- they numbered almost six million, most scholars believe. And the unifying force, besides the great spiritual message that is the main motivating force of the Torah, is the fact that the Jews had a second chance to attempt the upward earthly holy path that is is the core of of the Torah.

As indicated earlier this holy path, being somewhat beyond human capability, has always been a stumbling block, if not an active agent, in creating Jewish anxiety. Non Jewish delighted in Jewish underachievement, and Jews delighted, among themselves, in their overachievement. The Yiddish phrase " a shonda for the goyim" shameful for the gentiles, marked the Jewish sense of anxiety and unease at underperformance and goyischer kopf --gentile head --- the low esteem Jews had for gentile smartness. But above all, all the Jews, then and now, stood at Mt. Sinai when God told all the Jews then that He was making them a Holy Nation and a lamp unto the peoples. "I make this covenant with him who is standing here before me this day and him who is not standing before me this day". From time immemorial Jews were supposed and maybe programmed to do better, and perhaps their guilty sense of missing the highest mark still leaves us with the guilty impetus and hope to keep up the blessedly strenuous effort to love one’s neighbor as thyself, (the Golden Rule) which was right out of Rabbi Hillel’s playbook over two thousand years ago and still can score the necessary winning goals for us even now on our human turf. After all, without the Jewish "failure" so far the world would be missing many, many winning scores.