Shabbat Pinchas: Wrestling with Numbers

According to the most recent estimates, the world Jewish population today now (finally) matches the world Jewish population before the beginning of World War II.

It took 76 years, a State of Israel and a net growth rate in babies born (especially among the Orthodox) to simply re-attain some 16.5 million Jews around the globe.

Seventy-six years it took us to “replace” the six million Jews killed by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust. Seventy-six years.

We read this week in the Torah from Parashat Pinchas. In it, Moses conducts a final census of the Israelites prior to their entering the Promised Land without him. The number of males over the age of 20, and thus eligible for military service, comes to 601,730 (Numbers 26:51).

At the beginning of the Exodus, some 40 years before the census recorded in this week’s parasha, there was an initial census of men from the age twenty years and up. Then, at the beginning of the Exodus, there were 603,550 individuals (Exodus 28:26). That is to say, during the forty years of wandering – with plagues, punishments, military losses and victories, and the efforts by God to remove the generation of slaves prior to arriving in the Promised Land – there were approximately 1800 fewer Israelites preparing to enter Israel than who left Egypt.

It remains unclear how many women and children left Egypt and how many women and children entered Israel. There could have been a staggering difference. Yet, we know that over forty years of wandering, nearly the same number of men began conquering the Promised Land as there were who left Egypt. In forty years, there was no population growth among men ages 20 and up.

Could it be then that now, some seventy-six years after the Holocaust, we too are preparing to enter the proverbial Promised Land? After all, the Israelites’ zero population growth in forty years (among men, anyway) parallels our zero population growth over the seventy-six years since the end of World War II. Perhaps it is time to celebrate and anticipate even greater accomplishments for the Jewish people.

Could there be another message? Perhaps while it took only forty years for our ancestors to regain their numbers following the spiritually and physically difficult Exodus, it took modern Jews nearly twice that time. Might this be a commentary on our low birthrate among Jewish families and a wake-up call regarding the need to have more children?

Could it simply be that the damage inflicted on the Jewish people by the Nazis during six years of war is double the heavenly price we paid for the Golden Calf, the faithlessness of the spies, and the complaining and frequent heresy of our ancestors?

Could it be something else? Or, perhaps, could it be none of the above? Today I wrestle. Today I am grateful that we have attained what we have attained, but I am mindful of what could have been.

Today I wrestle. What do you think?

Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Aaron L. Starr

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