Why are we here?, or the 0.3 percent solution

Note: the following sermon was delivered August 2002 at Temple Beth Am, Seattle, Washington, by Jeff Silverman, a layperson in the congregation.

It is traditional in the period between Shavuot and the High Holidays to skip the D'var Torah. So, instead of explaining something, I am going to ask you a question and invite you to go think about it.


Why are we here?


This question can be asked at many different levels: it is delightfully ambiguous. For example, it could be construed to mean "Why are the people present in this room at this moment present in the room at this moment?", and on a beautiful summer evening in Seattle, that is actually something I'd like to know.


Why are we here could just as easily be construed to mean "Why are we members of Temple Beth Am"? That's a good question, and while I personally have little interest in it, there are people, the board of directors, the Rabbis, the staff, who would like to know. Ultimately, Temple Beth Am exists because the organization fulfills some need in its members.


For those of us who have studied recent history, "Why are we here" could be construed to wonder about how we survived, no, how we endured the forces that would destroy us. The Nazis tried to destroy us, and failed; the Arabs tried to destroy us, not once, but many times in the past 50 years, and failed; the Christians in this country have tried to assimilate us, and they appear to be failing at that, too.


Or we could go back through the mists of time and look at who we went up against, and lost to! Our troubles begin with the Egyptians who enslaved us, and then we tangled with the Amalekites (who we are commanded to forget), and then the Canaanites, and the Philistines, and then the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, and then the Greeks, and then the Romans, and then the Spanish Inquisition, and then the Crusades, and then the Pogroms of Poland and Russia. We are still here. The Amalekites are forgotten, except for some references to them in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Egypt is no longer a world power. Nor is Greece, nor Rome.


There is an essay, "What if the world was a village of 100 people?". There would be no Jews in such a village. There are 6 billion people on this planet. There are maybe 18 million Jews, maybe. That is 0.3% of the people. We are a tiny minority, so why are we still here?


What does it mean to be here?


One of the things that identifies a group is their ideas. If you look at, for example, the Boy Scouts, you will see a group that can be identified by a world view of community service, of integrity, of outdoorsmanship, and of capability. If you look at the Republican party, you will see a political party that freed the slaves 140 years ago. Ahem. If you will look at the Jews, you will see a group that believes in Ethical Monotheism to be sure, but also a group that has a demanding intellectual expectation of its members. There is a joke: What do you call an Israeli with a Master's degree from Brandeis? A drop out. The Jews are still in the thick of an international battle of competing world ideas. However, we are not stuck in the 12th century like some ethnic groups I could mention; but rather we are out there in forefront of current thinking in a vast variety of areas. In this room, in this audience, I see people who are some of the best in their fields in Literature, the arts, engineering, the sciences, law, and business. Remember earlier when I noted that 0.3% of the people on this planet were Jewish? But about 15% of the faculty of the EE department at the UW are Jewish: we are over represented by a factor of 50. I am told that similar ratios exist at other departments within the UW.


So, we're here. But why are we here?


I don't know.


I have a clue, which is a metaphore from the history of science. There was once a theory of combustion which posited a substance called Phlogiston. In 1777, Antoine Lavoisier presented a paper which destroyed the Phlogiston theory of combustion and established the Oxidation theory of combustion that we all study in high school today. The scientists who developed the phlogiston theory are no longer remembered, but the Oxidation theory of Combustion is now second nature to us, and that explains dynomite, gas stoves, catalytic converters and rust.

It may be the case that we're still here because our ideas about how the world ought to operate are valid. Maybe. But if that were the case, why are there only 18 million of us?


Maybe 18 million Jews is enough? When God decided to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, he found only one righteous person. Had there been 9 more, God would have saved the city. How many wicked people were there? The Torah doesn't say, but if you believe that 0.3% is enough, then 2,700 people - not an unreasonable number for a city at that time and place.


There are probably other answers - I'd really like to know, if only because it will make next year's D'var Torah easier to write.