There is a statement, in a recent Biblical reading, with such far reaching implications that it challenges the impression that has prevailed thus far in Torah: “The L-rd did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples.”
This is the exact opposite of what we have been led to believe until now. In Genesis, G-d promised the patriarchs that their descendants will be like the stars of the heaven or the sand on the sea shore – uncountable. In Exodus we read how Jacob’s family were “fertile and prolific, and their population increased. They became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”
Even in Deuteronomy, Moses describes the Israelite s as being “as many as the stars of the sky.” King Solomon speaks of, “the people you have chosen… too numerous to count or number.” The prophet Hosea says that, “The Israelite s will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted.”
In these texts and others it is our numerical greatness that is emphasized. What then are we to make of Moses’ words ‘you are the fewest of all’? Targum Yonatan interprets it not to be about numbers, but about self-image. He translates it not as “the fewest of peoples” but as “the most lowly and humble of peoples.”
Sforno gives a simple solution: Had G-d chosen for His honor, undoubtedly He would have chosen a numerous people. But He chose for love; His love for the patriarchs and their children, regardless of how few.
Historically Jews were and are a small people: today less than a fifth of one per cent of the world’s population. There were two reasons for this. First is the heavy toll of exile and persecution. The second is that Jews did not seek to convert others. Had they done so they would have been closer in numbers to Christianity (2.2 billion) or Islam (1.3 billion). So why has Divine providence and history conspired for the small numbers of Jews?
G-d is telling us that nations are not judged by their size, but by their contribution to humanity. The proof: that a nation as small as the Jews could produce an endless flow of prophets, priests, poets, philosophers, sages, saints, codifiers, commentators, rebbes and scholars; that they could also yield some of the world’s greatest writers, artists, musicians, academics, intellectuals, business people and technological innovators. Out of all proportion to their numbers, Jews could produce lawyers fighting injustice, economists fighting poverty, doctors fighting disease, and teachers fighting ignorance.
You do not need numbers to enlarge the spiritual and moral horizons of humankind. You need other things altogether: a sense of the worth and dignity of the individual, of the power of human possibility to transform the world, of the importance of giving everyone the best education. The evidence is still with us today: the state of Israel traduced in the media and pilloried by much of the world, still year after year, produces human miracles in medicine, agriculture, technology, the arts, as if the word “impossible” did not exist in the Hebrew language. When, therefore, we feel fearful and depressed about Israel’s plight, it is worth returning to Moses’ words: “The Lord did not set his affection on you…because you were more numerous…for you are the fewest of all peoples.”
Small and surrounded? Yes. But that small people, defying the laws of history, outlived all the world’s great empires, and still has a message of hope. You don’t have to be large to be great.
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