Buried inconspicuously in this week’s parshah is a short sentence with explosive potential, causing us to think again about the nature of Jewish history and the Jewish task in the present.
Moses had been reminding the new generation, the children of those who left Egypt, of the extraordinary story of which they are the heirs:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:32-34)
The Israelites had not yet crossed the Jordan. They had not yet begun their life as a sovereign nation in their own land. Yet Moses was sure, with a certainty that could only be prophetic, that they were a people like no other. What has happened to them was unique. They were and are a nation summoned to greatness.
Moses reminds them of the great revelation at Mount Sinai. He recalls the Ten Commandments. He delivers the most famous of all summaries of Jewish faith: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” He issues the most majestic of all commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Twice he tells the people to teach these things to their children. He gives them their eternal mission statement as a nation: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
Then he says this: “The Lord 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” (Deuteronomy 7:7).
The fewest of all peoples? What has happened to all the promises of Genesis, that Abraham’s children would be numerous, uncountable, as many as the stars of the sky, the dust of the earth, and the grains of sand on a seashore? What of Moses’s own statement at the beginning of Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deuteronomy 1:10)?
The simple answer is this. The Israelites were indeed numerous – compared to what they once were. Moses himself puts it this way in next week’s parshah: “Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deuteronomy 10:22). They were once a single family – Abraham, Sarah and their descendants – and now they have become a nation of twelve tribes.
But – and this is Moses’s point here – compared to other nations, they were still small. “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you…” (7:1). In other words, not only were the Israelites smaller than the great empires of the ancient world. They were smaller even than the other nations in the region. Compared to their origins they had grown, but compared to their neighbors they remained tiny.