JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan, 5761


The secret of immortality


By Rabbi Yonason Goldson


WHAT became of the Roman Empire? What happened to the ancient Greeks? Why did the Mayans and the Khazars and the Phoenicians disappear?

The historical rise and fall of nations has determined the shifting politics of power since the beginnings of recorded time, and the greatest of empires has inevitably returned to the dust of all human beginnings -- with one exception.

"All things are mortal but the Jew," observed Mark Twain. "All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"

In truth, it's no secret at all. It's a lesson we first learned over three thousand years ago, one that remains current if we will only stop to learn it.

For two hundred and ten years the earliest generations of Jews lived in Egypt, first as honored guests, then as indentured workers, and finally as cruelly oppressed slaves. Over the years and the decades they began to absorb the values of ancient Egyptian society -- the arrogance, the idolatry, the immorality. So steeped were the Jews in the ways of the Egyptians that they were poised to lose their identity, to surrender their national character to the dominant Egyptian culture that surrounded them.

But it never happened. It never happened, the Talmud tells us, because the Jews preserved three cultural touchstones: their names, their clothes, and their language. And by preserving these they saved themselves from cultural annihilation.

Their names. Did Shakespeare not say that a rose by any other name will smell as sweet? Perhaps so, but our own names are more than mere labels: they communicate not only the personal taste of our parents', but also our cultural and societal identity. Consider how one might react differently to a request or an invitation from Abe, from Avrohom, or from Ibrahim? The same name, yes, but with a very different cultural spin. And so, by retaining their Hebrew names, the Jews in Egypt erected a sociological barrier that protected them from slipping over the edge of the cultural abyss and into the oblivion of assimilation.

Their clothes. Do clothes really make the man? So we are told, but why? Well, who are you going to hire to represent your company: the applicant who shows up for the interview in a suit and tie or the guy in flip-flops and a tie-dyed tee shirt? The way we dress is a projection of how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. Executives project professionalism, policemen project authority, and clergy project a respect for tradition through their choice of clothes.

In her widely acclaimed book, A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues that dressing with sensitivity for who we are is essential to our emotional and psychological well-being, as well as to developing healthy relationships and enhancing intimacy. By rejecting the fashions and styles of Egyptian society, the Jews preserved a sense of cultural individuality that strengthened their resolve to remain apart from the mainstream of Egyptian society.

Their language. "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." This expression of linguistic relativity, uttered by none other than that preeminent academician, Humpty Dumpty, could easily be the standard of contemporary American society. Indeed, in today's politically correct world, any word that offends must be exorcised from the language and replaced by some ambiguous, fuzzy term that avoids hurting feelings by muddling meaning.

Nearly us half a century ago George Orwell alerted to the dangers of "thought crime," the institutionalized control of free thought by restricting and manipulating language. Yet our society forges ahead implementing its own version of Newspeak to expunge all undesirable ideas by redefining or eliminating the words that might express them.

The ancient language of Hebrew is more than the language of Jewish civilization. It is a repository of cultural reference points that provides us with an appreciation for our own heritage, as well as access to the divine. If such translations as holy, profane, exegesis, ritual purity, and even Sabbath leave us coldly indifferent, it is because they cannot capture the essence of concepts and phenomena that are distinctly Jewish.

By clinging tightly to their language, the Jews kept themselves immersed in their cultural values. By not relinquishing their style of dress, the Jews preserved their sense of cultural integrity. By using only their Jewish names, the Jews retained their sense of personal Jewish identity. By keeping all three, the Jews saved themselves from extinction.

It is a sacred trust our ancestors have handed down us. What better time than Pesach, therefore, to reflect upon our duty to hand it down to the next generation, to ensure that it remains a legacy for every generation until our present exile, like the exile in Egypt, finally ends with our ultimate redemption.


JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis, and writes a regular column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2001, Rabbi Yonason Goldson