The Basis of Jewish Identity
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
There’s a lot of talk in the world today about “Jewish identity”. What constitutes a “Jewish identity”? Do you have to like bagels and lox? Let’s make that “Jewish identity” even stronger –how about lukshen kugel and gefilte fish?
Obviously, what you eat does not determine your identity. (Need I mention the stereotypical Jewish passion for Chinese food?) Rather, “Jewish identity” is based on something lasting, something eternal. “Jewish identity” is a sense of who you really are.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the first and most powerful way human beings come to define who they are is through their family. “Who I am” begins with my membership as a part of my immediate family, my extended family, and all the other men and women I am distantly related to as a member of my people.
Slaves, for example, have historically been stripped of their identity by being separated from their families and denied the right to maintain normative family relationships.
That’s why in this week’s parasha (Torah portion), Moshe (Moses) takes a census of the Jewish People. The former Hebrew slave nation needed an opportunity to take account of the relationships that defined who they were. “Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names…” (Numbers 1:2). The census was exacting and inclusive. Every tribe is described in great detail over a number of verses.
Did the Almighty need a census to tell Him how many men, women, and children were a part of the Jewish People? As you may imagine, the answer is certainly not. Like all other commandments, the Almighty commanded the Jewish People to take a census “according to their families, according to their fathers’ household” for their own sake.
The Hebrew slave race that had been redeemed from Egypt only some two years prior needed encouragement to raise their heads high. Some two hundred years of slavery had not broken them, but had certainly eroded their sense of worth. The Jewish People needed to learn that they weren’t just a pack of animals regardless of how the Egyptians had regarded them. Every one of us was – and still is – a member of something far greater than ourselves. We were – and are – a family in the most noble and exalted sense of the word.
This is the quality that gave the Jewish People the capacity to receive the Torah. This powerful sense of meaningful Jewish membership and identity is what gave us the capacity to sustain our individuality throughout the changing fads of time as history washed over us like so many erosive ocean waves. Throughout history, the Jews have defined the moral fabric of human civilization by example rather than by active educational outreach to gentile nations. “What we do” is only important in the context of “who we are”, because it is who we are that carries the seeds of mankind’s greatest human potential.
What does it really mean to “connect to your heritage”? It means realizing that your identity is contextualized by your immediate family, your distant family, and your people. Who we are, our Jewish identity, and the heroic destiny of mankind all depends on strong, proud Jewish family relationships. No nation is created or sustained by individuals. The family unit is the backbone of nationhood, just as national identity gives strength and pride to the family unit.
The commandment to take a census of the Jewish People was not phrased casually – “Go pull them together and figure it out, Moshe” – rather, the Almighty told Moshe to, “se’u es rosh B’nai Yisrael”, meaning “take a census of the Children of Israel”, but also implicating “lift the heads of the Children of Israel” (ibid). As Ramban comments, “the language usage of se’u is nothing but the language of greatness” (Ramban ibid). Commentary puts it succinctly: “He counted them out of His love for them.”
Let’s treat our fellow Jews, especially our immediate family members, with the same love. Let every Jew know that for you and for our entire nation, he really counts.