It's Reassuring: Number of Jews Can Increase as Well as Shrink
The other day I had a call from a wonderfully eccentric cousin who is always concocting one scheme or another to save the Jews. Particularly perplexed by the latest release of the National Jewish Population Study, my cousin's imagination was working overtime to figure out how to "replace" the 300,000 Jews "lost" between 1990 and 2000. Reminiscent of Rabbi Alex Schindler's push in the Reform movement to present Judaism as an attractive option to the "unchurched," my cousin began to think of intensive Jewish immersion experiences for non-Jews.
This all sounded quite radical, yet strangely reflective of a thread of Parshat b'Shalach. The Me'am Loez commentary has numerous comments to make about the erev rav, the mixed multitude who accompanied the Israelites as they left Egypt.
Rabbi Jacob Culi, for instance, wonders whether they really were Pharaoh's motivation for repenting of his promise to let the Israelites go. He could dismiss the Israelites' devotion to God. They, after all, were "born" into the traditions of Israel. But that Egyptians would take on the traditions of Israel maddens Pharaoh to no end.
One wonders what kind of spiritual incubation could so quickly convert so many of the erev rav into resolute Israelites? A range of possibilities exist.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that the dramatic Exodus story had its intended effect on these marginal residents of Egypt. Clearly, it was better to be on the side of the Israelite God if he could outperform the Egyptian deities so decisively.
Me'am Loez countenances another possibility. Namely, that the erev rav was well aware of the wealth the Israelites took with them from Egypt. Perhaps they could share in that wealth.
Finally, one might surmise, as I believe both my cousin and Rabbi Alex Schindler would want to believe, that the practice of Jewish tradition was inherently rich and compelling for non-Jews with transitional identities.
Surely, for Jacob Culi, who witnessed so many Jews leaving Judaism in droves in the post-Shabbtai Zvi era, there must have been something reassuring that Jewish numbers could grow as well as shrink. Perhaps it can also provide some perspective that keeps our present consternation about losing Jewish numbers from becoming crippling.
Reprinted by permission of the Cleveland Jewish News.
This dvar Torah is one of a series influenced by the Me'am Loez Sephardic Torah commentary. Author: Rabbi Jeffrey Schein