“The people of Israel grew as a nation on the basis of a unifying idea”

"Attaining freedom by 'accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven' is not a simple or self-evident thing. 

A penetrating question arises, which was probably asked by those who came out of Egypt, and which continues to be asked even today: 

Why can other people, large and small, live their lives without Torah? 

And why must the people of Israel, of all nations, be exceptional in order to exist? 

The answer is connected with the anomaly of the Jewish people–an anomaly that has existed since its inception as a people. 

It is best expressed in the words of the prophet: 'Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? Or shall a nation be born in one moment?' 

Ordinarily, the creation of a people takes many centuries, during which a joint existence slowly binds the individuals into a larger unit, which then assumes its own identity. 

This was not so with the Jewish people—the people of Israel was 'brought forth in one day,' in a one-time process. 

Since the beginning of its existence, its unity and unique national character have not simply stemmed from the fact that 'we are here.' 

The development of the people of Israel is not 'natural.' 

Consequently, our people cannot satisfy itself with mere existence.

The people of Israel grew as a nation on the basis of a unifying idea, and the nation's continued existence is connected with that idea. 

Rav Saadia Gaon said: 'Our nation is a nation only in its Torah,' and this saying retained its significance even in generations when most of the Jewish people did not live by the Torah. 

The Torah has nevertheless remained the foundation of the life of our people, because ties of identity always draw upon a common past, and this common past is imprinted with the unifying seal of the one Torah."

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
 
From "Freedom Without Content" in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

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