Beshallach: The proud, the few, the ... Jews?

A “Final Jeopardy” category this week was “World Religions.”  The “answer” was that this religion’s worldwide adherents number more than one billion, with particularly strong representation in the Middle East. The contestants chose Islam, Judaism, and Sunni, the last being correct (the first being deemed too general).    

One billion Jews in the world? Halavei!  (If only!)  The actual number is a miniscule fraction of that amount, at most, a mere 15-17 million. 
Why, after thousands of years, are there so few Jews?  

One obvious reason is oppression/anti-Semitism/persecution. Scores of millions of Jews have been murdered over the millennia.  Far more numerously, no Jews have descended from these victims.  

Even so, anti-Semitism has not been the main reason why the Jewish people remain so few.  The principal reason is that Jews have chosen not to remain Jewish and propagate Jews, whether consciously (conversion), consequential action (mostly, intermarriage), or apathy.  

According to this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Jewish nation emerged from Egypt when Pharaoh drove us out after the tenth plague (although he shortly thereafter regretted doing so and hurried to recapture us).  From this account, we have the impression that all Jews left Egypt.  But according to Rashi, citing Midrash, not only is this incorrect, it is wildly incorrect.  Only one-fifth of the Jews left Egypt! 

Some say that the large majority had assimilated and declined to leave; others that they were afraid to do so; and still others that they were killed in the Plague of Darkness because they were evil and G-d found them unworthy of redemption. (Sources: Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael Beshallah 19:1:19; Rashi on Exodus 10:22; Rashi on Exodus 13:18).

“Fast forward” 1,300-1,500 years.  According to Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, the worldwide population of Jews was about 10 million -- the same order of magnitude as our current numbers 2,000 years later.  With normal population growth from that remnant, he calculates, there should be 400 million Jews today.  Even if half were killed, there should still be 200 million.  

Yet we have under 10% of that number.  Rabbi Riskin’s conclusion: That’s the way it’s always gone for us. We have remained few not primarily due to anti-Semitism, as horrendous and devastating as that has been, but through our own lack of commitment.  [My notes of his remarks, December 26, 2013, Jerusalem]. 

Why?  I think the main reason for our remaining very small is that most Jews have not seen and do not see the value in remaining Jews.  Since emancipation (the past two centuries), all Jews have been "Jews by choice." The main reason most have not "chosen to be 'chosen'" is that they/we have not sufficiently internalized that ethical behavior, rather than “religion,” is Judaism's most important imperative… and the most important reason to remain and practice Judaism.  If they/we want to live ethical lives, and to teach their/our children and grandchildren to do so, there is no better way for a Jew to achieve this than by remaining and indeed embracing Judaism and its teachings.  

I don’t claim that Judaism is the sole source of ethics in the world. Rather, I claim that:

1.  (Divinely mandated or inspired) ethical living is Judaism’s most essential value warranting its survival, and that

2.  We should be emphasizing and showing this to other Jews, especially to our children and grandchildren, whom we hope will choose to remain Jewish.     
Each of us has the opportunity, privilege, and responsibility to try to live, and to teach Judaism, i.e., ethical living.  If we don’t embrace this mission, then why remain Jews at all? 

Perhaps more to the point, the low numbers throughout our history -- and particularly in recent decades -- indicate this: If we don’t show and teach our children and grandchildren that ethical living is the reason why they and their descendants should choose to remain Jewish, most of them ... won’t.   

Shabbat shalom! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb