Jews don’t count Jews. Not even for a minyan. It’s a long-standing tradition dating back to this week’s Torah reading, in which everyone is told to contribute a half shekel in order to take a census. In King David’s time, a census taken in the conventional manner was said to be responsible for an outbreak of plague.
In synagogues to this day, when we need to establish if the 10-man quorum is present, we don’t count heads. There are a variety of traditional techniques employed. Either “not one, not two” or using the words of a Scriptural verse with 10 words. If we can finish the verse, then “Bingo! We have a minyan.”
Rashi, the most famous medieval commentator, posits that the reason for this is to avoid the “ayin hora”—the “evil eye.” Most people think the “evil eye” is just an old Jewish superstition. Not so. When people’s successes are celebrated ostentatiously or publicly, it can cause others to cast a begrudging eye on their good fortune. This, in turn, may cause a negative reaction spiritually. So, we don’t like to call attention to our success.
My wife’s grandmother lived to well over 100-years-old and left many hundreds of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Whenever she was asked how many she had, she would never give a straight answer. She was concerned about “ayin hora.” My wife and I have, thank God, been blessed with a large family. When my wife is asked how many children she has, she always says, “one of each.” The evil eye is a large subject, however, and not for this column.
So, how do we take a census among Jews?
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about strength in numbers and how it doesn’t apply to the Jewish people. The Chinese and the Indians may have it. We Jews don’t. “For you are the fewest among the nations,” says the verse in Deuteronomy. If we look at mere numbers, we don’t amount to very much. We are a miniscule fraction of the world’s population. And yet, we occupy center stage in the global arena, not necessarily to our liking. Sometimes I wish the world would forget about us and just go about its business.
Tiny Israel has become a global heavyweight because of its colossal achievements in medicine, technology, defense, artificial intelligence and much more. It’s mind-boggling that a country the size of New Jersey is giving so much to the world. To say our contribution is enormous is an understatement.
Here in South Africa, our Jewish community is small and has gotten smaller in recent years. Yet the average person assumes there must be a million Jews in the country. Why? Because of our contribution. In business, politics, medicine, law, philanthropy and civil society, we punch way above our weight.
So it is all around the world. Just look at the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. We are 0.2 percent of the world’s population and have won 22% of Nobel Prizes. That’s such a staggering achievement, it’s almost embarrassing.
As a rabbi, I am even more impressed with our formidable influence on the moral and ethical codes of so many cultures and societies, which continue to draw heavily on our Torah and Talmudic sources.
That is precisely why it’s dangerous to count Jews. If we put our trust in numbers, we’d be down for the count. But if we look at our contribution to the world, we can hold our heads very high indeed.
Many years ago, I was talking to a successful fundraiser and he shared a line that stuck in my mind: “How do you win over a non-Jew? You give him something of value. How do you win over a Jew? You take something of value from him.” Is that racist? I don’t think so. It simply reflects our natural inclination to give. When we contribute something of ourselves to a particular cause, we identify more strongly with it.
God tells Moses to take a national census by obtaining a half shekel from each individual. You want to count Jews? Don’t just look at their numbers. Look at their contribution. Then you will know their true value. The finest way to measure the strength of a people is not by their numbers but by what they give to the world.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.