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    Few amidst the many – B’midbar

    The Israelites in the desert, print from 1784

    The sidra is all about numbers – the census of the people in the wilderness, which revealed that there were 600,000 Israelite males, with a total, when women and children were added, of at least two million.

    In today’s Jewish world, population numbers are again a subject of immense interest, concern and sometimes consternation. For we are not yet back to our pre-Holocaust figure, and everywhere in the Diaspora being a minority is too hard a challenge for some who prefer to opt out and abandon their Jewish identity.

    It is hard to belong to a minority. It brings problems, pressures and neuroses. Yet Jews have made contributions to civilisation out of all proportion to their small numbers. Judaism as a system has given the world monotheism, ethics, messianism, a sense of history, a sense of human community. Individual Jews have been pioneers in every field of human endeavour. There is hardly a sphere of life in which Jews do not figure prominently, and all in spite of being a minority.

    AL Goodhardt says it is precisely because we are a minority that we have achieved so much. To him, there are three main advantages in belonging to a minority. You have a questioning spirit and never accept things as they are. You have moral courage and stand up for principles. You have an adventurous spirit, always ready to pioneer and venture forward.

    True, there are also disadvantages. You are inclined to be less confident because you are in a sense an outsider. You may be driven to aggressiveness as a form of self-defence. You may have a desire to be subservient to the majority in order to become more comfortable and more equal. But Goodhardt is sure that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

    However, hovering over any minority is always the fear of disappearance. The group may have a proud record, but can it survive? To continue to be and to achieve, a minority needs a high level of loyalty from every member. The sidra, describing the Israelite camp, says that each person visibly rallied to the flag of his tribe. Each carried the mark of group identity. The group was not composed of nameless, faceless, gutless shadows who, if one may mix metaphors, only wanted to sink back and hope not to be noticed.

    A minority cannot afford cultural amnesia. It has been said that every Jew holds the honour of his people in his hands; the fact also is that every Jew holds the future of his people and heritage in his hands. Every Jew has to say, “Everything depends on me – what I know as a Jew, what I observe as a Jew, and when I stand for as a Jew.”

    It is easier, and lazier, to want a quiet life and to leave it all to others. But the fact is that, when it comes to the crunch, there simply are no others!

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