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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Bamidbar

Birth Rate

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In this week’s parsha, the opening one of the book of Bamidbar itself, the Torah resumes the narrative of the story of the Jewish people in the desert of Sinai which it left off with a few exceptions in the middle of the book of Shemot. The Torah begins this new phase of narrative with a recording of the count and numbers of the Jewish people and its individual tribes. All commentators note that the numbers here are eerily about the same for all later counts of the Jewish people recorded later in this book. Though forty years will have passed and many momentous events will have occurred the population figures for the people of Israel remain pretty constant. There are many reasons posited for this phenomenon - a low birth rate in the desert, the death of an entire generation not living past sixty, wars and plagues, etc. Nevertheless, the lack of growth in numbers over the forty year span is noteworthy and seemingly exceptional. One can already see in it the harbinger of the words of Dvarim - I have not chosen you because you are many for in fact you are the smallest of all peoples. Certainly our experiences in the long exile and hostile Diaspora have proven the accuracy of this statement. Persecution, pogroms, Holocausts, assimilation and malnutrition, a high infant mortality rate, poverty and despair have all combined to inhibit any true proportionate growth in our numbers. Jewish population has only tripled since Roman times while world population has increased more than forty fold over that same period of time.

I would think that in a world that is willing to eliminate Jews by all sorts of means, it would seem logical and imperative for Jews to attempt to be more numerous. The low birth rate among Jews who are not yet part of the traditional observant Jewish world is a very worrisome fact. All of the great ideas of Judaism that continue so to influence the entire world nevertheless require human physical bodies. Judaism is certain to vanish without the presence of actual living Jews who advance its causes and live its lifestyle. Judaism has shown throughout its history that numbers are certainly not everything. But on the other hand they are also certainly something. The Talmud teaches us that out of a thousand students perhaps only one achieves greatness and leadership. But without the thousand the one will also never appear. The current trends of conversion to Judaism and of baalei teshuva returning to live a traditional Jewish life are heartening. But so to speak this is "outside" growth. The real key to Jewish survival and vibrancy is "internal" growth. A stronger birth rate and a stable home life, wise parenting and a commitment to marriage and family can contribute greatly to the development of this necessary "internal" growth. Individually, no one can instruct someone else how to live one’s life. But setting a sense of national priorities and extolling it as the norm in a Jewish society will certainly help the Jewish people demographically and spiritually.
Rabbi Berel Wein
The rabbi of the "HANASI" congregation in Yerushalim, head of the Destiny foundation, former head of the OU, Rosh Yeshiva of 'sharai Tora" and rabbi of the "Beit Tora" congregation, Monsey, New York.
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