JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review May 30, 2003 / 28 Iyar, 5763

The Incredible Shrinking People

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | In 1950, according to the census of the Jewish Federations in North America at that time, the Jewish population of North America was approximately six million people. That meant that there were six million people in North America who identified themselves as Jews.

According to the natural increase in population as exhibited in the general population in North America there should now be at least fifteen million people in North America who identify themselves as Jews.

In stark reality, however, there are barely five million people in North America who do so.

That means that there are ten million people — potential Jews — who have disappeared in the last half-century, and their absence is out of personal choice and not external enmity. That statistic is certainly one of the saddest ones for Jews in this doleful past century.

Sixty years ago, there were nineteen million Jews in the world. Today, there are approximately thirteen million Jews in the world. A half-century after the Holocaust, we have not replenished the numbers that the Germans and their cohorts extinguished. This ugly and sad fact only intensifies the tragedy of the Holocaust in the current Jewish world.

In the three countings of the Jewish people in the desert, one of which is the main theme of the this week's Torah reading, Bamidbar, there is also no noticeable increase anywhere or any time in the numbers of the Jewish people during their forty-year stay in the desert of Sinai.

For the missing ten million American Jews there are many reasons that can be marshaled to explain the disaster. Assimilation, an astronomical rate of intermarriage, feminist careerism, zero population growth- in fact minus population growth in the Jewish community, late marriages, and the ravages of modern American society, can all be cited as reasons for the static numbers. But what were the reasons for the lack of population growth of the Jewish people in the Sinai desert?

None of the reasons cited above, which apply to North America, were valid as regarding the generation of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Torah itself has an attitude towards Jewish numbers and population. G-d told the Jews explicitly: "I have not chosen you because of your great numbers; rather, you are to be the smallest of all nations." There seems to be some sort of Divine brake upon the Jewish population after the Exodus from Egypt. Though we are commanded to be numerous, to enlarge the Jewish people and its spiritual influence in the world, we are to be aware that our numbers will somehow always be limited and that we will never achieve great numbers relative to other great populations in the world.

Pogroms and forced conversions have decreased our numbers over the centuries. Terrible living conditions - of poverty, poor sanitation and the pressures of being a persecuted minority have decimated us, as has assimilation and intermarriage, and voluntary spiritual surrender. Because of these facts, I am of the opinion that the miracle of the fact that there are still millions of Jews in the world — proud Jews, Jews by choice and faith — is a far more important point than the sad reality that there are so few Jews, relatively speaking, in the world.

The fact that there are so few Jews in the world places a great responsibility on the Jews that do exist. The world is preserved by the few, the righteous, the moral and the kind. Our father, Abraham, and our mother, Sarah, built the civilized world by education and example, even though they were a lonely couple in their world.

The few are the ones that lead and guide the many, for good or for better. The realization of the importance of the individual is one of the cardinal principles of Jewish belief and behavior.

In fact, the source of much of Jewish self-pride and positive stubbornness over the ages is the understanding that we belong to the few and therefore we are special — and the basic attitude of Judaism and the reason for its survival is that of being unique.

So, the numbers of Bamidbar (Numbers) teach us an ancillary lesson, which is as important as the direct count and numbers of Israel itself.

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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com. Comment by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2002, Rabbi Berel Wein