This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, is remarkable for so many reasons. It includes within its four chapters the first paragraph of the Shema (“Hear O Israel”) and the Ten Pronouncements (often mistranslated as the Ten Commandments). It includes one of the Four Questions asked annually at the seder table. And it reminds us that we are unique not because of the quantity of our numbers but because of the undiluted intense quality of our spirits.
When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, I had to miss a very special religious celebration — Simchat Torah in Boro Park, Brooklyn — because two siblings in my family had to stay home during the holiday and keep Mom company, as she wasn’t able to make the trip. Debbie and I had gone the previous year, so this year was a chance for Rhonda and Sharon to go. The next Shabbat, they were back home, regaling us with how great it had been and what we had missed.
“Oh my gosh, Dov,” they exuded. “Everyone was there!”
That was all I could take. I shot back: “Everyone was there? Even President Nixon was there?”
They conceded that he was not there. Ever since, it has become a mantra in our family when someone asseverates that “everyone” has been somewhere: “Everyone? Even Nixon?”
Interestingly, a few years ago, I conducted a wedding and afterward mentioned at Shabbat table that “everyone was there.” My son, 16 years in training, retorted: “Everyone? Even Nixon?” I thought a moment and responded: “Yes, Aharon — even Nixon was there.” (The wedding had been in Yorba Linda at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, where the 37th president is buried.)
We all love to be among “everyone.” We count success and importance by numbers: “Was everyone there?” “It was an amazing graduation — there must have been 10,000 people there.” “I go to the best temple in the city — we have 1,000 members. Everyone goes there.” And, indeed, we see and hear about these megaplex churches where Sunday services are attended in stadiums packed with 15,000 people. Everyone is there.
Is it not amazing that we Jews have continued vibrantly as a religious faith community for 3,300 years despite being so comparatively few in number? Maybe it shouldn’t be:
“For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be His own treasure, out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people — for you were the fewest of all peoples. [Rather,] because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath that He swore to your Fathers, the Lord has brought you out [of Egypt] with a mighty hand and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).
At the core of our identity as a Jewish People is that focused, explicit definition that our relationship with God derives not from numbers and quantitative demographic expansion but from a spiritually integral core, undiluted. Others, during centuries past, forced people to convert to their target religions by threatening torture, instant death or torture followed by instant death. .
It never has been our Jewish way to spread through the countryside, even peacefully, with missionaries or to proselytize in China or the Philippines. Rather, we alone believe that people of all faiths who live righteous lives have a place for everlasting reward in the World to Come. We are not consumed with increasing our numbers. “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people — for you were the fewest of all peoples.”
Today, in the Middle East, we are the fewest of all nations. There are 22 members of the Arab League (counting suspended Syria). Then there is the new caliphate. And then the non-Arab countries whose populations are more than 90 percent Muslim, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Gambia, Guinea, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal and Turkey. We are a speck on the global map, even as we Jews are but a speck on the American map.
Our secret of survival — and our remarkable success of rising to Nobel prizes and influence beyond our numbers — is not found in “everyone” being Jewish. The empires of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire — “everyone” — are tourist attractions in history museums. Rather, our strength lies within.
Every Jew, wherever he or she may live, carries a responsibility to guard and protect the eternity of our people and our spirit by devoting time each day, even if only 15 minutes, to studying Torah, to studying Jewish history, to learning Hebrew, to getting acquainted with the prayers in the siddur (prayer book), to gaining an understanding of what it means to be a Jew and to transmitting the heritage, paying it forward to the next generation.
A great place to begin is in this week’s remarkable Torah portion that touches on so many central themes in Jewish thought — even if there’s nothing about Nixon.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a legal consultant and an adjunct professor of law, is a longtime member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and rav of Young Israel of Orange County. His website is rabbidov.com.
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