Parashat Ki Tisa – the Torah narrative that includes the story of the Golden Calf – opens with these words:
“The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment…” (Exodus 30:1)
We do a lot of head-counting at Temple Beth El – and as a consequence, a lot of hand-wringing. “Where have all the Jews gone?” we lament.
Ki Tisa begins with a count of Israelite males over the age of twenty. But it isn’t the men who are counted. It is the half-shekels that they contribute.
Biblical censes notwithstanding, in fact, our tradition teaches us that we ought never to count actual Jewish heads. When King David conducted a census, the people were stricken with a plague. The great commentator Rashi reasoned that counting Jews risks their exposure to the evil eye. Perhaps this is part of our problem!
Conventional wisdom has it that there is strength in numbers. Yet historically, our people have always been numerically modest in comparison with the broader population. One estimate has it that currently, Jews make up a mere 5th of one percent of humanity.
Biblically, we might see that our smallness is part of a grander design. In Deuteronomy 7:7 we read:
“God did not set affection on your and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples.”
Our greatness, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us, is not and has never been measured by our numbers, but rather, by our contributions. Consider, for a moment, the great Jewish thinkers, philosophers and scientists, the great Jewish artists and musicians, jurists and economists. From Einstein and Wittgenstein to Levi-Strauss to Freud; from Milton Friedman to Proust and Kafka, from Agnon to Schoenberg to Berlin and Gershwin; from Brandeis to Frankfuter to the “notorious RBG,” our tiny people has produced an unceasing flow of intellectual, scientific, legal and artistic achievement: 48 Nobel prizes in the field of economics alone!
We can confidently claim that our congregation has not broken the mold. OK, I am unaware of any Nobel winners that trace their roots to TBE. Yet our contributions to the quality of life in Bakersfield at large – and yes, even to ourselves – belie our diminutive size. Our members are still, and have long been, local leaders in the fields of law, education, communal service and the fine arts. And who would think that our little shul could produce Purimspiels and Megillah-renderings as entertaining and as creative as what we annually experience? Who would think that two tiny shuls, working together, could produce an event as grandiose and worthy as our Jewish Food Festivals? Or even that we might inspire and shepherd so many seekers to become Jews themselves?
Enough with the constant counting of tushes in the pews and people at our programs. (Though truly – if all one does is complain about it and not show up, one is part of the problem, not the solution!).
Let us measure our worth by the richness of Jewish life in Bakersfield. For if we focus on growing our contributions to that, we will surely attract the attention we desire – and the half-shekels that come with it.
My family and I wish you all a sweet and kosher Pesach. See you at the Jewish Food Festival!
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein