In 1961, a Jewish grandmother had the chance to have a private chat with the young, charming president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. And why would a Jewish grandmother come and visit with a Catholic president? To ask for weapons, of course. This is how Elie Wiesel records the conversation between Golda Meir and JFK.
"You come from the land of the Bible, Mrs. Meir. Let's talk about that."
"I'll find you a rabbi, Mr. President. First, we need to talk about weapons."
"I'll give Israel money," the president offered.
"Money you'll give to the UJA. We need weapons."
"I'll put the 6th fleet on alert in the event of a crisis, and even make a security pact with Israel."
"Thank you, Mr. President. We'll take that, but we first need weapons."
A somewhat perplexed and perturbed president wanted to know why she was so obsessed. Allow me to paraphrase how this Jewish grandmother responded.
"Mr. President, I come from an ancient people, a small people — always were and always will be. But we have large dreams. Twice in our history, our temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, and we've been exiled from our home. Though now we have returned, our temple is not rebuilt and Jerusalem not fully restored. If we don't have the ability to defend ourselves, then every member of our small family will no longer be capable of dreaming."
This past week, we celebrated a transformative event in the life of our people — Yom Yerushalayim, "Jerusalem Day." On the 28th of Iyar, Jerusalem was reunited with herself and we, her children, were reunited to our mother. But from a point of view of real politik, from a geopolitical analysis, all was lost.
On the eve of the Six-Day War, Israel was facing a well-trained and Russian-supplied army of some 250,000 belligerents. In that combined army, they had 2,000 top-tier Russian tanks and 500 first-line aircraft. Israel had but a fraction of that, in terms of men and materiel.
And yet, the Almighty who had made miracles for our small family in previous eras does so in our days as well. If there is strength in numbers, if size matters, then we as a people are lost. Who else better than the Jewish people understand this point, not just philosophically, but factually. We are a mere one-quarter of 1 percent of the world's population — a "mere statistical error on the Chinese census," in the words of Milton Himmelfarb.
Count Us In!
This week, as we continue the Jewish journey in the book of Numbers, we encounter another taking of a census.
Hebrew has several verbs for "counting" — lachashov, limnot, lifkod and lispor. But the word the Torah invokes regarding this week's census — also the name of this week's portion — is Naso, and it's incredibly significant. It means "to lift up." Why, then, when counting the Jewish people, is this the appropriate verb?
Golda already said it. We are a people who never were, and never will be, quantitatively large. And living in a world where demographic density drives an election or an agenda, in a word, where size matters, then we could easily become disheartened or pessimistic. And yet, "the Jewish contribution to the world is extravagantly out of proportion to bulk of his size," observed Mark Twain. "His contributions to the world's list of great names are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers."
Nasoh: Lift your heads up, Jewish people. You have deep and resonating standing in the world — intellectually, morally, spiritually — because you stood at Sinai. Your power does not emanate from numbers, but from purpose. It is not the bulk of your size that will make you influential, but the ennoblement of your spirit; it's not the largeness of your census, but that of your soul.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.