Friday, September 01, 2023

The Secret of Jewish Resilience


Thank offering unto the Lord, offering of first fruits, as in Deuteronomy 26:1-11, illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company between 1896 and 1913

Totalitarians don’t like the truth. In the Soviet Union, reality was consistently denied, and bad news was ruthlessly censored. Josef Stalin’s declaration in 1935 that “Life is getting better, comrades! Life is getting merrier!” was turned into a full propaganda campaign, including a hit song. This joyous slogan was coined just a year after a four-year famine that claimed the lives of 8,000,000 people. A year later Stalin would launch the Great Purge, which would claim the lives of over 700,000 people. Life certainly wasn’t getting merrier.


Throughout history, authoritarian regimes from the Pharaohs down to Putin have hidden their failures. Ancient Egyptian records carry no mention of defeats; much the same is true in contemporary China and Russia, where disinformation has been turned into an art form. Bad news is a challenge to the authority of dictators.


The Tanakh is very different. Joshua Berman writes that “the Bible displays a penchant for judging its heroes harshly, and for recording Israel’s failings even more than its successes. No other ancient Near Eastern culture produced a literature so revealing of fault….”


The Tanakh’s willingness to grapple with bad news launches a culture of authenticity and responsibility. Even more astounding is the obligation, found in Deuteronomy (26:5-9), to revisit the worst moments in our history at the most joyous of times. “Parshat HaBikkurim,” or the “The Declaration of the First Fruits,” was a short proclamation read by farmers when bringing their offering of first fruits to the Temple. In it, a short precis of Jewish history is offered:


My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. But the Egyptians mistreated us, afflicted us, and laid hard bondage on us. Then we cried out to the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. And He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey....


While thanking God for the new harvest, a farmer recites a proclamation that tells the Jewish story, starting from the patriarchs. It is a narrative of wandering and slavery, with equal space allotted to the misery of exile and the blessings of redemption.


Parshat HaBikkurim also becomes the central text of the Passover Haggadah, where it is punctuated with additional commentary. The Mishnah states that the Haggadah follows a format that “begins with disgrace and concludes with their glory.” There are two theories in the Talmud about what this phrase means; but Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman offers convincing arguments that the Mishnah is actually referring to the reading of Parshat HaBikkurim at the Seder, which emphasizes the humiliation of slavery before turning to the story of redemption.


The Seder starts with an extended retelling of the years of slavery. This is particularly notable because being a slave was considered a stigma in the ancient world. Yet for Jews, this section was of such importance that the Talmud says that one should recite the story of disgrace and slavery “in a loud voice.” (Sotah 32b)


But why? What exactly is the point of revisiting slavery?


“Beginning with disgrace and concluding with glory” is certainly an effective narrative tool; one truly appreciates freedom after enduring slavery. The Zohar remarks that “one doesn’t understand a sweet taste until they have tasted bitterness.” Starting the narrative in the midst of the agony of slavery is a far more meaningful and dramatic way to tell the story of redemption.


Remembering the disgrace of slavery also keeps one grounded. Maimonides explains that the shared lesson of the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot is that “man ought to remember his worst days in his days of prosperity. He will then offer a great deal of appreciation for God’s gifts, and learn the importance of a modest and humble life.” Success can corrode the soul, and allow people to imagine that they are invulnerable. The memories of slavery are meant to be humbling, a way to present the comfortable and prosperous with a more authentic picture of life.


A third possibility is that recalling the years of slavery can, paradoxically, make us more resilient. Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes that the opposite of being fragile is not being strong; it is being able to adapt to threats and overcome them. He uses the example of Hormesis, which is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. In humans, exposure to small doses of poison increases the body’s ability to cope with larger doses of that poison in the future; similarly, vaccines expose people to a weakened or dead form of a virus that triggers the immune system and readies it to fight off future threats.

On a psychological level, the same thing occurs when retelling family stories. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, and his colleague Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, have found that the most resilient children are those who are deeply familiar with their family's history and are taught an “oscillating narrative”: that the family has had challenges in the past, but then were able to overcome them. Knowing their family history of adversity made the children psychologically stronger.


Resilience is psychological hormesis, where one learns how to transcend their personal challenges by remembering past challenges endured by their parents and grandparents.


Resilience is why we begin the Exodus story with an extended discussion of slavery. The traumas of exile over us an important lesson: We have transcended slavery in the past, and we can do so in the future. As Michael Walzer puts it: “Wherever people know the Bible and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and inspired their resistance.” We retell the story of slavery because it strengthens us, and helps us transcend future challenges.


Parshat HaBikkurim’s narrative about the Exodus from Egypt stands in marked contrast to the ways of ancient Egypt, which exaggerated its victories and hid its defeats. But that is precisely the secret of Jewish resilience to this day; and these former slaves are still going strong, while their masters have long disappeared from the world stage.


Jews continue to draw incredible strength from the Passover Seder. Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union for nine years after he applied for a visa to emigrate to Israel, has spoken often about the meaning the Seder held for him in his years of imprisonment. During endless KGB interrogations, Sharansky would tell himself: “Your history did not begin with your birth or with the birth of the Soviet regime. You are continuing an exodus that began in Egypt. History is with you.”


Sharansky would explain that he first learned about the Seder when he joined the Zionist movement at 24: “As part of my Zionist activities, I began to learn Hebrew in secret, in an underground ulpan. I celebrated the first Passover Seder of my life with my fianc√© at the time, Avital (then Natalia), in Moscow. … As we didn’t know Hebrew well enough to read from the Haggadah, our teachers gave each of us a short part to memorize.”


A few years later when Sharansky was in solitary confinement, he continued to celebrate the Seder. As he put it, “Recalling the lines I had learned for my first Seder, I felt that our struggle continued…. I repeated the words of the Haggadah: ‘This year we are slaves, next year free men; this year we are here, and next year in Jerusalem.’... And I found out that this is the great place to …enjoy thinking that….next year we could be free people in Jerusalem.”

Here is the secret of Jewish resilience on full display. Sharansky draws strength from the Seder, which tells a story that “begins with disgrace and concludes with glory.”


The same holds true for all of us. No matter how awful the situation, we must remember that Jews have overcome worse in the past. And at the most difficult of times, we must never forget that tomorrow we could be free again.

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