Bamidbar 5767 — Dedication Weekend

Before sharing my d’var Torah from this past Shabbat, I just want to say we had an amazing weekend of dedication events for our new building–from a "sing out Shabbat" Friday night, to Shabbat services, to the setting of the time capsule Sunday morning to the dedication concert Sunday night, it was an amazing experience, truly one of the highlights of my rabbinic career.  We had an incredible weekend.  The concert included a piece by Cantor Gerald Cohen especially commissioned for the event, based on the verses from Ecclesiastes inscribed on the Jerusalem stone in the sanctuary, sung by our Hazzan, Jamie Gloth, and special guest and former congregant who now sings in off-Broadway productions in New York, Andrea Rae.

Now, to the d’var Torah:

If the Jewish people seem obsessed with demographics, continually counting ourselves and mulling over the implications of whatever the numbers show, at least we come by it honestly.

God Himself seems obsessed with counting the Jewish people. Today we read from the beginning of an entire book of the Torah, Bamidbar, whose English name, Numbers, reflects this obsession.

Our parsha begins with God commanding Moses שאוּ אֶת-ראשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשרָאֵל “count the heads of all of the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls.” In other words, it was time for the National Jewish Population Survey!

According to Rashi, the census in this week’s parsha is the fifth time God took a headcount of the people of Israel: the first was when they were leaving Egypt, the second after the sin of the Golden calf (in order to know how many were left!), the third when God came to place His divine presence on them, the fourth on the first of Nisan when the tabernacle was set up, and this counting, which took place on the first of Iyar.

Why all of this counting? Rashi says מתוך חיבתן לפניו מונה אותם כל שעה, “because of their preciousness to Him, He counts them all the time.”  At first I thought this made God sound like a miser counting his gold; I prefer the imagery the Hazzan came up with when I mentioned this Rashi, that of a shepherd counting his sheep.

Not only does God count his flock all the time, he counts them into different categories. We get a grand total of the number of Jewish men of an age to go out to war – 603,550, excluding the Levites who did not serve in the army. This total is broken down into camps – agglomerations of three tribes. For example, machane Yehuda, the camp of Judah, numbered 186,400. Each camp was further broken down into tribes; for example, the tribe of Zevulon consisted of 57,400 men of fighting age. The tribe of Levi was further broken down into families – the Gershonite family included 7500 men and male children.

Just as the Torah’s count of the Jewish people is broken down into four different categories – nation, camp, tribe, and family – our modern counting of the Jewish people also commonly happens at four different levels. We pour over the statistics for the number of Jews in the world, and each nation, in the city or community, and in the congregation. Our Torah portion gives us the statistics of the Jewish population over 3000 years ago. This morning I’m going to review some of the Jewish statistics of today.

Starting at the top level, there are around 13 or 14 million Jews in the world. We are a tiny fraction of the 6 billion people alive on planet Earth. We are about .2% of the world population – meaning out of every 1000 people on the planet, only two of them are Jewish. By comparison, 330 out of every thousand are Christian and 210 out of every thousand are Muslim. There are more people who practice a religion most of you probably never heard of—“Spiritism” a hybrid of Christianity and paganism indigenous to Brazil—than there are Jews. Yet Jewish influence on the world stage has far out stripped our meager numbers. More than one out of every five Nobel Prize winners has been Jewish. Many of the technological innovations that define life in the modern world were invented or co-invented by Jews, including the transistor, the printed circuit board, cell phones, camera phones, the first video game console, supersonic flight, lasers, nuclear power and drive-through banking. Many incredible advances in medicine came from the minds of Jews: the vaccines for polio, plague, and hepatitis; the birth control pill, cataract surgery and the pacemaker. Many more mundane inventions that we encounter every day were invented by Jews, including the Barbie doll, the shopping cart, and blue jeans. Would our importance on the world stage be greater if there were a million or two more Jews? Would it be less if there were a million or two fewer Jews? Hard to say. Many of our accomplishments came after a time when the population of Jews in the world was reduced by a third because of the Holocaust.

At the next level of detail, the national level, we find an interesting statistical comparison: Israel and America have roughly the same Jewish population, a little over 5 million in each country. Given that the Jewish population in Israel is increasing, and the Jewish population in America is decreasing, it is quite certain that if it has not happened yet, it will very soon be the case, for the first time in almost 2000 years, that there are more Jews living in Israel than in any other country in the world.

And that number – the number of Jews in Israel – is vitally important not only to Israel, but to Jews all over the world. Just over 59 years ago – on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion presented the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, in which he said [WE] HEREBY DECLARE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL, TO BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL. Ben-Gurion said “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….” 

In other words, Israel was to be both a Jewish and a democratic state. The existence of a Jewish state is important for all Jews, not just Israelis. It is important because of the cultural revitalization that a connection to Israel provides for all Jews, and it is also important as the ultimate insurance policy. I recently had the honor of welcoming a new Jew to our midst as Av Beit Din for a conversion. As part of the interview, one of the members of the beit din asked the conversion candidate about the issue of anti-Semitism. “Obviously you read the papers and know there are lots of people who hate the Jews. Why would you want to sign up for exposure to that?” She replied “I believe the religious depth and satisfaction I will find in Judaism outweighs any negatives that might come from Anti-Semitism. Besides, if things get really bad, I could always go to Israel.”

“If things get really bad I could always go to Israel.” But for Israel to remain a Jewish state, for Israel to remain a home of last resort if not first choice, we have to pay very close attention to demographics. Pretty soon there will be more Muslims than Jews living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean if you include the West Bank and Gaza. The Jewish population of Israel may be increasing, but the Muslim population in the region is increasing even faster.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was very aware of this, as he declared in a speech to Israel’s National Security College: "we must not ignore the demographics. It is impossible to maintain a Jewish and democratic country here, over the years, while ruling over millions of Palestinians in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza."

This is a case where demographics are compelling Israel do the right thing, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. If Israel is to remain both Jewish and democratic, there is no viable long term alternative to the Palestinians having a state of their own.

The next level of detail, the city or community, is also very important. The two cities most on my mind these days are my current home – Toledo – and the city which, God willing, will become my home 51 days from today: Jerusalem.

Once upon a time there were more than 10,000 Jews in Toledo. Today, that number is less than 4000. Does it matter?

You bet it does. It takes a certain number of Jews for a community to have critical mass. To be able to support Jewish institutions like synagogues, Jewish Family Services, and a Jewish Day school. Some of you here today come from families that have roots in Toledo going back five generations. For those roots to endure to a sixth generation, a seventh generation, the community needs to maintain a certain minimum number of Jews to have that critical mass. Already our day school struggles with declining enrollment and has recently closed its middle school. 

The other city much on my mind these days – Jerusalem – also has serious demographic challenges.

This past Wednesday we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim. 40 years ago this week (on the Jewish calendar), in the heat of the Six-Day War, the Israeli army captured the old city of Jerusalem and the eastern suburbs from Jordan. It was an incredibly emotional moment. From the founding of the state of Israel until that June morning in 1967, Jews were unable to pray at the holiest site in Judaism, kotel hama’aravi, the Western Wall. On Wednesday I watched the story of news coverage from that day 40 years ago, (click here to watch) and tears came to my eyes when I heard the announcer call out har habayit shelanu! Har habayit shelanu! The Temple Mount is ours! The Temple Mount is ours! And the pictures of the Israeli soldiers touching the Wall with tears rolling down their battle-hardened faces…. What an amazing moment.

But the joy of Yom Yerushalayim for me is tempered slightly by some of the baggage that comes with it. With the joy of reuniting Jerusalem, no one was able to foresee that a demographic train wreck was only forty years away. In 1967, right after the war, the population of Jerusalem was 74 percent Jewish and 26 percent Arab. Today, the city is 66 percent Jewish and 34 percent Arab, and the gap is narrowing by about one percentage point a year.

The Arab population of Jerusalem has been increasing rapidly; at the same time, the Jewish population has been increasing very slowly, despite a very high birthrate among the city’s Haredi Jews. And the reason is more Jews are leaving Jerusalem than are moving to the holy city. Jews moving out of Jerusalem have outnumbered Jews moving to Jerusalem for 27 of the last 29 years. Secular Jews are finding Jerusalem less and less attractive; the NY Times reports “When it comes to job opportunities, affordable housing and a varied cultural life, Jerusalem is less appealing to secular Israelis than Tel Aviv or other cities.” Not only that, many secular Israelis are turned off by increasing religious and political intolerance. One woman in the NY Times report told a story of how she was dressed casually but modestly and was accosted by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who began yelling at her that she was not properly clothed. The women said “I just felt less and less welcome.”

While my family and I are doing what we can to help Jerusalem’s demographic problem, many Americans are actually making it worse. Real estate prices in many major American cities such as New York are so sky-high that Jerusalem looks like a bargain. Absentee Americans (and Frenchmen and British) who buy apartments in Jerusalem and live in them for two or three weeks a year are driving up the price of real estate for those of us who would like to live there year round. Certain parts of Jerusalem are virtually ghost towns except during the holidays.

The situation is so critical that last Sunday Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski said that a  lack of a Jewish majority in the capitol could transfer the city into the hands of Hamas in as soon as 12 years and the Arab population could reach 50% by 2035. Of course, Lupolianski is a politician, and he was probably trying to scare people into supporting his preferred solution to the problem – annex more Jewish towns further and further away from Jerusalem into the “municipality.”

I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb, be careful what you wish for, for you may get it. Israel succeeded in reuniting the holy city of Jerusalem – but now what are we going to do with it?

 There are no easy solutions to Jerusalem’s demographic problem, but the simplest and most obvious is to redivide the city into two. For all practical purposes, the city already is divided. You don’t see many Jews wandering around Arab Abu Dis
, and you don’t see too many Arabs wandering around Emek Refaim, the main drag in the heavily English speaking German Colony. 

As on the national level, demographics may drive the Israeli government to do the right thing – to provide the Arab citizens of East Jerusalem with a city of their own – even if it is motivated by less than noble reasons.

At the next and lowest level of detail in this morning’s demographic survey – the congregation – we also have demographic issues. Forty years ago B’nai Israel had a thousand families; now we are fewer than five hundred. But here numbers certainly fail to tell the whole story. Even though it was mostly the changing demographics that led to the decision for us to move to a smaller building, one look around at this beautiful facility and inspiring sanctuary shows that we are alive and well. For a community declining in numbers to be able to build such a wonderful home, without having to burden future generations with a long term mortgage, is a powerful testimony to the strength and depth of commitment in the Toledo Jewish community. It’s a statement of commitment to the future of Jewish Toledo.

And that commitment is made not by a statistic, not by a number, but by a real-life person. And that is a lesson we might have trouble learning from a recitation of statistics – each and every one of you is important. Each and every one of you counts.

The Slonimer rebbe taught that every letter in the Torah corresponds to a soul in Israel. In this week’s Torah portion we are told there were 600,000 standing at Mt. Sinai, and there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. For each and every soul at Mt. Sinai there is letter in the Torah, and each and every one of us is a descendant, physically or spiritually, of one of those 600,000 souls. Each of the four letters in God’s name corresponds to one of the four “camps,” groups of three tribes, encircling the Tabernacle. The Slonimer teaches that every soul illuminates its letter in the Torah, and joins it to the camp, joining it to God’s name. The expression of God, God’s name, is only complete when we are all joined together.

And that coming together makes it appropriate that we read this parsha this week, the week before Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates receiving the Torah. We need to be joined together as a community, a complete community, no one left out. We need to be a community that is whole to receive a Torah that is whole.


That line of transmission continued through various rabbis, including Hillel and Shammai, on to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Rishonim, the Acharonim, down to the rabbis of today. And today, here at B’nai Israel, we are very fortunate indeed to have several generations of the congregation’s rabbis, past, present, and future, here celebrating this dedication weekend with us…and Rabbi Ungar to Rabbi Kamens, and Rabbi Kamens to Rabbi Leff, and Rabbi Leff to Rabbi Saks. 

But the transmission of Torah is not just a job for rabbis.  There’s a great story that illustrates this which I found, in of all unlikely places, in a story from the New Yorker magazine about a lawyer named Harley Lewin who chases after people who make counterfeit watches and handbags. Harley is talking about going kayaking with a paddle based on a thousand year old Eskimo design and he says “There are some things that are spiritual in nature. There are things that you put in your hands that other people have made and when you feel those things you feel…well, let me give you an example. When my first son was bar-mitzvahed, I gave him my tallit to wear, the one I was bar mitzvahed in, and I wore the one my father gave to me that he was bar-mitzvahed in and that his father had been bar-mitzvahed in. It has the names of six people who wore it on a little piece of paper that’s kept with it in a bag, so it’s at least six or seven generations old. It’s shredding. I told the Rabbi afterwards, I said, “Rabbi, you put it on and it’s like being wrapped by dreams.”

And that, for the Jewish people, is our dream. That our tradition keeps getting passed down to the next generation, onward and onward. That our generation won’t be the one to break a chain going back over 3000 years. And that’s why we obsess about our numbers, always have and probably always will. 

The Mei Shloach, a Chasidic commentator, brings a beautiful picture of the Jewish people as a mosaic image. He says, “the meaning of counting the number of the children of Israel is that everyone is absolutely necessary. The greatness of the Blessed God is seen in the entire community of Israel as a whole, and if just one member of that community is missing then the mixture will be deficient. It is as if the image of the King were made up of a mosaic of many small parts, and if just one of the parts were missing, then the picture of the King would be lacking. So at the time when each member of Israel is counted, then He is the greatness in all of Israel, for each one of Israel is a portion of the Blessed God.”

Our new building is amazing, but if any one of us missing, the king’s image is deficient. If someone is missing from congregation, the mosaic is missing a piece. What the building needs to complete it is our souls filling it with קוֹל שָשוֹן וְקוֹל שִמְחָה קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.

The future of the Jewish people depends on you.


Shabbat Shalom

Reb Barry


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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