Parashat Pinchas Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
The second thing I read when I open The Jewish Chronicle is the rabbi’s D’var Torah. The first thing I read is the Celebrations section, specifically the bar and bat mitzvahs taking place that Shabbat here in Pittsburgh. On a good week, there are five or more. Often there are fewer. Sometimes I have to rub my eyes and look twice because there are none.
Anyone who cares about Pittsburgh Jewry is well aware of our demographics. If there is good news, it is that we are not alone. Jewish communities across the country have been shrinking. We know the contributing factors. American Jews remain single and marry later than all other groups. We defer having children longer, and we have fewer children per couple. We are older by median age. The bad news is that starting in the 1990s, Pittsburgh became the fastest shrinking city in the country. Since the Jewish Federation’s 2002 demographic survey, all of us can see how this demographic tsunami has left a hole in our Pittsburgh Jewish community.
What does the future hold? Demographers and social scientists suggest more bad news. Millennials have now supplanted baby boomers as the largest demographic cohort, and like their baby boomer parents, millennials are not joiners. But baby boomers did join synagogues to give their children a Jewish education. Will millennials follow this role model as they become parents?
If the present is disquieting and the future potentially more so, it’s time to do what Jews have always done in such circumstances. We look to the past. In particular, we look to Torah.
Pinchas highlights two principles of Judaism for us to hold fast.
The second principle is so subtle that it is easily overlooked. In Pinchas, a census was taken as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land. The count was 601,730. This was the second census in the Book of Numbers. The first census was taken 39 years prior as the people were about to depart from Mount Sinai. This count at the beginning of Numbers was 603,550.
The math astounds. The people declined in numbers! It may seem a relatively paltry sum, 1,820. Yet, given all the miracles the Israelites had going for them that you and I can only dream of — God’s presence, the pillar of fire and cloud to lead them day and night, manna to feed them and Moses to teach them — we could have expected their numbers to soar. So even the slightest decrease demands our attention. Indeed it should inspire us.
Herein lies the second principle proffered by Pinchas: Judaism is not a numbers game. Judaism measures us by quality, not quantity. Relative to the world’s population, today’s 16.5 million Jews are a smaller proportion than the decrease by 1,820 between Number’s two censuses.
But today’s 16.5 million Jews also lead to Pinchas’ first principle. According to the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, today’s 16.5 million Jews equals the world’s Jewish population at the precipice of the Holocaust.
If the Holocaust proves anything, it proves that the Jewish people are indestructible. Jews died, 6 million souls. But Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people lived. We live now in numbers as great as we have ever lived, and with the birth of every additional Jew, by biology or theology, we become the largest Jewish community that ever lived.
So how do we approach Pittsburgh’s demographic decline? By thinking beyond Pittsburgh. By reframing the fate of our community in the context of the worldwide Jewish community. And by rebooting our self-perception not by woe-is-me myopia, but by Pinchas’ first principle: passion. Pinchas had passion for Judaism. Pinchas had passion for the Jewish people. Pinchas had passion for God. God’s passion for Pinchas then inspired God’s Covenant of Peace.
Judaism is not a numbers game. But as we learn from Pinchas, Judaism is a Numbers game in our passion for God, in God’s passion for us and our shared passion for peace.
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.