The Way of Responsibility: The Jewish Future

Unit 10



Unit 10 final cover

Student Guide

Educator Guide


Building on the central concept of the Jewish national mission that was explored in the previous unit, this tenth unit presents Rabbi Sacks approach to Responsibility. For Rabbi Sacks the definition of a Jew is one who sees the problems in the world and seeks to fix them. Judaism is God’s call to responsibility and to be a Jew is to accept responsibility.

For every Jew today there are roughly 155 Christians and 120 Muslims. More than three thousand years later, the words of Moses in Deuteronomy remain true: ‘The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of peoples.’ We were then. We are now.

Why did God choose this tiny people for so great a task, to be His witnesses in the world, the people who fought against the idols of the age in every age, the carriers of His message to humanity? Why are we so few? Why this dissonance between the greatness of the task and the smallness of the people charged with carrying it out?

There is a strange passage in the Torah in Exodus 30:12: ‘When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no mishap (negef) will come on them when you number them’. The implication is unmistakable. It is dangerous to count Jews. Centuries later, King David ignored the warning and disaster struck the nation. So why is it dangerous to count Jews?

Nations take censuses on the assumption that there is strength in numbers. The larger the people, the stronger it is. And that is why it is dangerous to count Jews. If Jews ever believed that their strength lay in numbers, we would give way, God forbid, to despair. In Israel they were always a minor power surrounded by great empires. In the Diaspora, everywhere they were a minority.

Where then did Jewish strength lie if not in numbers? The Torah gives an answer of surpassing beauty. God tells Moses: Do not count Jews. Ask them to give, and then count the contributions. In terms of numbers we are small. But in terms of our contributions, we are vast. In almost every age, Jews have given something special to the world: the Torah, the literature of the prophets, the poetry of the Psalms, the rabbinic wisdom of Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud, the vast medieval library of commentaries and codes, philosophy and mysticism.

Then, as the doors of Western society opened, Jews made their mark in one field after another: in business, industry, the arts and sciences, cinema, the media, medicine, law and almost every field of academic life. They revolutionised thought in physics, economics, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Jews have won Nobel Prizes out of all proportion to our numbers.

The simplest explanation is that to be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to help in the monumental task that has engaged Jews since the dawn of our history, to make the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, human dignity and the sanctity of life. Though our ancestors cherished their relationship with God, they never saw it as a privilege. They knew it was a responsibility. God asked great things of the Jewish people, and in so doing, made them great.

When it comes to making a contribution, numbers do not count. What matters is commitment, passion, dedication to a cause. Precisely because we are so small as a people, every one of us counts. We each make a difference to the fate of Judaism and the Jewish people. Zechariah said it best: ‘Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says the Almighty Lord.’

Physical strength needs numbers. The larger the nation, the more powerful it is. But when it comes to spiritual strength, you need not numbers but a sense of responsibility. You need a people, each of whom knows that he or she must contribute something to the Jewish, and to the human story. The Jewish question is not, What can the world give me? It is, What can I give to the world? Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.

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Educational Aims

The educational aims for this unit are for students to:

  1. Consider that despite our small number (or perhaps because of it) we have been chosen to fulfil a national mission.
  2. Understand that Judaism is a call to responsibility to improve the world.
  3. Reflect that this responsibility can be discharged with small and individual acts.
  4. Connect to these ideas in a practical and personal way, and to consider how they can fulfil their own sense of responsibility.

The ‘Ten Paths to God’ curriculum project has been generously sponsored in honour of Chaim (Harry) and Anna Schimmel.