By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Nine of the holiest rabbis cannot make a minyan. Enter one little bar mitzvah boy, and suddenly the minyan is complete! When we count Jews, there are no distinctions. We don’t look at religious piety or academic achievement. The rabbi and the rebel, the philanthropist and the pauper — all count for one; no more, no less.
This week in Bamidbar, we read of the census of the Jewish people. This portion is read before Shavuos, the season of the giving of the Torah. One important and obvious connection is that in the Torah, too, every letter counts. One missing letter invalidates the entire scroll. Likewise, one missing Jew leaves Jewish peoplehood incomplete.
If we count Jews because every Jew counts, that implies a responsibility on Jewish communal leadership to ensure that no Jew is missing from the kehillah. We must leave no stone unturned to keep those Jews on the periphery inside. Make sure they feel that they belong and are welcome — even if they haven’t paid any membership fees.
It also means that the individual Jew has commitments and obligations. If you’re important, make sure you don’t get lost. You are needed.
Once there was a small town consisting of only a few Jewish families. Between them, they had exactly ten men over the age of bar mitzvah. They were all dedicated people, and they made sure that they never missed a minyan. One day, a new Jewish family moved in to town. Great joy and excitement: now they would have eleven men. But a strange thing happened. As soon as they had eleven, they could never manage a minyan!
When we know we are indispensable, we make a point of being there. Otherwise, we may say, “count me out.”
Today, we are losing a lot of Jews to ignorance. But we also lose them because we didn’t embrace them as we could have. At a time when they were receptive, we didn’t make them feel welcome. Other faiths, ideologies, and cults are using “love bombs” to entice Jews to their way of life. Yes, very often they prey on the weak and vulnerable among us. Anyone desperately seeking warmth, love, and a sense of belonging will be an easy target for such groups. But there are lots of ordinary, stable people who crave these things too. Don’t we all? If the Jewish community doesn’t provide that warm welcome, we may very well find them going elsewhere.
Some years ago, we had a visiting rabbi from Canada speak in my shul. He spoke about the very real threat of Jews for J and Hebrew-Christians who preyed on unsuspecting Jews by using Jewish symbols and even “shuls” or messianic synagogues, which are really nothing more than churches in disguise. He described how these individuals make every deceitful effort to confuse ignorant Jews into believing they are going to a “Jewish” house of worship.
A woman in the audience then asked, “Rabbi, if I am traveling in North America and want to go to shul, how will I know if I am going to a real shul or one of these impostor synagogues?”
The rabbi laughed and said, “When you go into these places, they bombard you. As soon as they see a new face, a dozen people will come over to welcome you and give you a seat and a book and make you feel at home. But what happens when you go into a real shul? Nobody greets you. Nobody looks at you. And the first person to say a word to you growls at you because you’re sitting in his seat!”
Ah bittere gelechter! A sad joke indeed.
Of course, we need to do more than just wait for people to come to shul in order to make them feel they belong. We need to go out and find our people wherever they may be. Certainly, though, when someone does show a spark of interest — a soul seeking its source — we need to be there: as an organized community, and as individuals.
Indeed, every Jew counts. So let’s count them in.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.