Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 9 December 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778

Chanuka

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The Power of Minority

We Jews represent a mere .02% of the world population. A minute minority indeed. Not for naught has this been the case since the inception of our history. The fact of our minority was revealed as an essential feature of our mission. Not because you are more numerous than any other peoples did G-d take delight in you and choose you; for you are the smallest among all the peoples (Devarim 7:7).

What better time than Chanuka, when we celebrate the victory of the few over the many, to reflect on this unique aspect of our nationhood?

Our minority status begins way back with our forefather Avraham the Ivri. He was called Ivri — the one from over there — our Sages note, because the entire world stood at one side, championing polytheism, and Avraham stood alone, on the other side, resolute in His monotheistic truth and piety. Within our people too, it was the minority that preserved G-d’s Will against rebellion of the masses. After the debacle of the golden calf, Moshe called out, “Whoever is for G-d, join forces with me!” Only a single tribe, the Levites, responded to the call. Out of the twelve spies sent to assess the Land, only Yehoshua and Calev remained loyal to G-d, standing firm against a panicked people prepared to return to Egypt. The events recorded in the books of the Prophets repeat this phenomenon over and over again. One man, with firm conviction and passionate commitment, stood up for the Law of G-d and saved the people: Gidon, Ovadiah, Eliyahu, Elisha — each resisted the misguided masses, and set the nation straight.

In the Chanuka story, this hallmark of our history is most apparent. The nation was rapidly assimilating to the Hellenistic culture surrounding it. One man, Matisyahu, raised five sons so mighty in spirit, so staunch in their commitment, that they took on G-d’s cause alone. It is the victory of these few great and pure souls, the victory won for the loyalty to G-d’s Law, that we celebrate on Chanuka.

Our history of three and a half millennia attests time and again to the triumphant perseverance of a tiny, powerless minority. Every page of our history reminds us: the fate of truth and right can never be hopeless, even if their cause is supported only by a minority.

But what advantage does a minority confer? Is there no merit and power in numbers?

A minority is likely the most fertile ground for cultivating spiritual truth. A victorious majority will all too often become unfaithful to its own cause. Once its struggle is a matter of the past, the members of the majority lend their minds and spirits to new aspirations. The core values which were once the fuel of its life, now immune from challenge, are left to wither — no further development or nurturance are pursued. A majority often imagines that its cause owes its victory to its numbers, when in fact its numbers were once won on account of its cause. Because the focus is on numbers, a majority is often content to preserve its numbers, or perhaps increase them. But the underlying cause remains just that — underlying. It lies buried under new ambitions, often of a different character. This may explain why some of the largest religions are underdeveloped theologically.

Not so for the minority. By virtue of its continuing struggle, it perpetually breathes new life into its cause. Survival of the minority depends on its ability to keep awake within it a vibrant spiritual reserve. Because the numbers and power of the majority always beckon, the minority is impelled to immerse itself, over and over again, in the content of its cause. A minority must educate its ranks not only to the truth of its cause, but to the character required to defend its cause. This, in turn, requires that each individual have access to knowledge and research — to make these truths personal ones. There can be no mindless masses if a minority is to survive. Hence, in our Jewish minority, the teaching and dissemination of our cause — Torah, G-d’s truth — occupies the most splendid and prominent place in life. The mind and spirit of the Jew are immersed so in this fountain of truth, that there is not one house of study without new insight. The result is a rich and ever growing reservoir of spiritual thought and strength. And, precisely because membership in the minority often requires sacrifice — material wealth and prosperity usually reside in the majority — the minority will likely be composed of more purely motivated supporters.

The fact of our minority is hardly a cause of despair. Its unique features have enabled us to live a noble existence for millennia. We are assured:

There is still within it a tenth consecrated to G-d; even though it will be destroyed again and again as the oak and the beech tree, whose trunk remains though they shed their leaves, still the trunk will remain holy seed. (Yeshayahu 6:13)

  • Source: Collected Writings II, Kislev IV, pp. 233-248

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