Not Numbers, Really, but the Size of Ideas



This week, we begin the fourth book of Moses. You will, no doubt, recognize its English name more readily than its Hebrew moniker. In English, it is known as the book of Numbers, yet the rabbis give it the appellation of chumash ha'pi'kudim, the book of Countings. Indeed, we begin with a census of the Jewish people. But, upon a closer look, we will see that "numbers" don't always add up.

A front-page article last week in USA Today floated the idea that for the next U.S. census in 2010, iPods, Starbucks gift cards and other seductive incentives might be offered to entice people to participate. Apparently, census numbers matter.

But however creative the accounting is, the Jewish people remain — even as the Hebrew Bible foretold 3,800 years ago — ha'm'at mi'kol ha'a'mim, "the smallest of the nations."

If size matters, then we, the Jewish people, should have faded into what the British historian Paul Johnson calls "the forgotten places of history." If the potency of our people was contingent upon the bulk of our size, then to appropriate Mark Twain's fascinating phrase, we would have long ago "faded into dream stuff."

To put this in sharper and starker focus: If size really matters and is determinative of survival, then the only place that Jews should be found today is in the Smithsonian Institution.

This coming week, the Hebrew calendar will mark — and the Jewish soul will celebrate — the newest of Jewish holidays. On the 28th day of Iyar, the third day of what history now refers to as the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was reunited and we, her children, became reunited with our spiritual mother. Thus, Yom Yerushalayim — Jerusalem Day — which falls this year on June 2.

But from the point of view of real politik — from a geopolitical analysis — all was lost before it began back in June 1967. Who doesn't recall the palpable panic that set in with Jews around the world? Who doesn't recall the sardonic joke — which tragically could have been close to the truth — that "the last Jew out of Lod Airport should turn off the lights."

The historian Michael Oren describes how on the eve of the Six-Day War, Israel was facing, in the aggregate, some 250,000 Arab belligerents, 2,000 top-tier Russian tanks and 500 first-line Russian-supplied aircraft. Israel had a fraction of that — both in terms of men and materiel.

One could easily fall into despondency and despair — that is, if strength is a function of size, and value is a function of volume. Our tradition teaches us a truth that is as relevant as it is revolutionary. Pay attention to how the Torah commands the census: S'ou et rosh kol adat b'nei Yisrael — "Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel."

Note the verb s'ou. Why does the Torah invoke this word instead of the more ubiquitous Hebrew verb lifkod or limnot? What does it really mean?

It means "to lift up." Why is this the more appropriate term for an enumeration of our people?

Our tradition is actually stating something that is cogent even as it is counterintuitive. S'ou: "Lift your heads up, Jewish people." Yes, you are small in number, but will be large in your contribution. You have standing in the world — intellectually, spiritually and morally, and not because you stood up at a census, but because you stood at Sinai.

Your relevance will not be a function of your size. Your power does not emanate from your physical number, but from your special purpose. Your influence will emanate from the power of your ideas, the consistency of your values and the ennoblement of your spirit.

And through these elements, the Jewish people will continue to survive.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


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