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Better Than Nobel Prizes

Friday, 3 July, 2020 - 10:07 am

Ask Google about Jewish contributions to the world and you will get many results about science, medicine, and Nobel prizes.

Jewish people are indeed responsible for a larger share of inventions and medical discoveries than their numbers call for. And, these contributions often reflect values of the Jewish people.

But, is that their most important contribution? Is being a mentsch, having a classy sense of humor or achieving academic success the hallmark of being very Jewish?


There is an old, wry joke that if you want to know how miserable the Jews are, look in a Jewish newspaper. If you want to see how great the Jews are doing, look in a non-Jewish newspaper.

This truism was especially accurate in Soviet Russia. In the 1920s the Jews of Soviet Russia knew intimately the definition of suffering and misery. Chief amongst them was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad.

He was considered an enemy of the state due to his activities keeping the flame of Judaism alive in the darkest of times and places. His “crimes” included sending Rabbis to cities and towns throughout the USSR, building mikvahs and underground Jewish schools. Initially, he was sentenced to death. Miraculously, his life was spared and a few weeks after his torturous imprisonment, on the 12 of Tammuz (93 years ago tonight), he was freed. Eventually, he settled in New York, bringing the Chabad movement’s headquarters to America.

Amongst the Jewish people he had many naysayers. “Why are you acting with such defiance? It won’t only cost you your life. It will endanger thousands of other Jews,” they argued.  “If Jews are to survive, we must tone down our Jewish identity. Even if you want to practice our traditions, do them quietly at home. Why are you so flamboyant about Jewish practice?!”

But, the Rebbe was adamant. The only way to ensure the future of the Jewish people is by ensuring the Jewishness of the Jewish people. 

History has proven the Rebbe was right. It took many decades. But, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the secrets came out. The underground infrastructure the Rebbe had built in the USSR was the foundation upon which today’s thriving Jewish community was built.

On the other hand, his contemporaries that advocated abandoning Judaism – or at least hiding it – simply don’t have descendants or adherents to continue that claim.


This week’s double Torah portion of Chukat-Balak gives us one such insight. Balak, a veritable anti-Semite hired Bilaam, an even greater anti-Semite, to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam was a prophet. Try as he may, he could not betray the word of G-d.

After failing to curse the Jewish people, he uttered some of the greatest prophecies, including the prophetic vision of a perfect world when Moshiach comes.

Most famous, however, are not his words of prophecy of the future. His real-time assessment of the Jewish people has become enshrined in daily Jewish liturgy. The famous words of Mah tovu – “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” – were first uttered by a twisted and corrupt anti-Semite named Bilaam.

What did Bilaam see in the Jewish people when he summed them up?

His poetry is very telling. He is obviously referring to the Jewish people. Yet, he doesn’t just say, “How goodly are your tents and dwelling places.” Instead, he emphasizes that these are the tents of Jacob and Israel. They are Jewish tents.

Later, he will prophesy about Jewish successes, about the huge impact this people will have on our planet. But, his initial assessment is of the cause of this great success.

What impressed Bilaam the most – and what caused him to concede that despite his gargantuan efforts to curse them, he must bless them – was the Jewishness of their tents.

It wasn’t their virtue signaling. It was their genuine and unabashed way of living life as a Jew. As Rashi points out, he noticed the piety of their encampment. He emphasized how holy the Jewish people were.

This, it turns out, is the greatest Jewish contribution.

Sending your child to the best college might be a good idea. Who knows, maybe she will even win a Nobel prize.

But, if you want to guarantee an enduring contribution that will completely change them – and the world forever – a mezuzah on your front door, lighting Shabbat candles with them and laying tefillin, will all go a lot further.

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