web analytics
May 28, 2015 / 10 Sivan, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


Home » Judaism » Parsha »

Numbers Don’t Tell The Story


Near the end of Parshas Va’etchanan, so inconspicuously that we can sometimes miss it, is a statement with such far-reaching implications that it challenges the impression that has prevailed thus far in the Torah, giving an entirely new complexion to the biblical image of the people Israel:

“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).

This is not what we have heard thus far. In Bereishit, God promises the patriarchs that their descendants will be like the stars of the heaven, the sand on the seashore, the dust of the earth, uncountable. Abraham will be the father, not just of one nation but of many. At the beginning of Exodus we read of how the covenantal family, numbering a mere seventy when they went down to Egypt, were “fertile and prolific, and their population increased. They became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).

Three times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the Israelites as being “as many as the stars of the sky” (1:10, 10:22, 28:62). King Solomon speaks of himself as set among “the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number” (1 Kings 3:8). The prophet Hosea says: “The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted” (Hosea 2:1).

In all these texts and others it is the size, the numerical greatness, of the people that is emphasized. What then are we to make of Moses’s words that speak of its smallness? Targum Yonatan interprets it not to be about numbers at all but about self-image. He translates it not as “the fewest of peoples” but as “the most lowly and humble of peoples.” Rashi gives a similar reading, citing Abraham’s words “I am but dust and ashes,” and Moses and Aaron’s, “Who are we?”

Rashbam and Chizkuni give the more straightforward explanation that Moses is contrasting the Israelites with the seven nations they would be fighting in the land of Canaan/Israel. God would lead the Israelites to victory despite the fact that they were outnumbered by the local inhabitants.

Rabbeinu Bachya quotes Maimonides, who says that we would have expected God, King of the universe, to have chosen the most numerous nation in the world as His people, since “The glory of the king is in the multitude of people” (Proverbs 14:28). God did not do so. Thus Israel should count itself extraordinarily blessed that God chose it, despite its smallness, to be His am segulah, His special treasure.

Rabbeinu Bachya finds himself forced to give a more complex reading to resolve the contradiction of Moses in Deuteronomy, saying both that Israel is the smallest of peoples and “as many as the stars of the sky.” He turns it into a hypothetical subjunctive, meaning: God would still have chosen you, even if you had been the smallest of the peoples.

Sforno gives a simple and straightforward reading: God did not choose a nation for the sake of His honor. Had He done so, He would undoubtedly have chosen a mighty and numerous people. His choice had nothing to do with honor and everything to do with love. He loved the patriarchs for their willingness to heed His voice; therefore He loves their children.

Yet there is something in this verse that resonates throughout much of Jewish history. Historically Jews were, and are, a small people (today less than a fifth of one percent of the world’s population). There were two reasons for this. First is the heavy toll taken through the ages by exile and persecution, directly by Jews killed in massacres and pogroms, indirectly by those who converted – in fifteenth century Spain and nineteenth century Europe – in order to avoid persecution (tragically, even conversion did not work; racial anti-Semitism persisted in both cases). The Jewish population is a mere fraction of what it might have been had there been no Hadrian, no crusades, and no anti-Semitism.

The second reason 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). In fact Malbim reads something like this into our verse. The previous verses have said that the Israelites are about to enter a land with seven nations: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Moses warns the Israelites against intermarriage with them, not for racial but for religious reasons: “They will turn your children away from following Me to serve other gods.” Malbim interprets our verse as Moses saying to the Israelites: Don’t justify intermarriage on the grounds that it will increase the number of Jews. God is not interested in numbers.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Numbers Don’t Tell The Story”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
American dollars.
IRS $50M Cyber Security Scandal Stretches to Russia
Latest Judaism Stories
Naso Lecture

This week’s video discusses the important connection between the Priestly Blessing and parenting.

Mosaic of 12 Tribes

Many of us simply don’t get the need for the Torah to list the exact same gift offering, 12 times!

Leff-052215

There is a great debate as to whether this story actually took place or is simply a metaphor, a prophetic vision shown to Hoshea by Hashem.

Staum-052215

Every person is presented with moments when he/she must make difficult decisions about how to proceed.

One does not necessarily share the opinions of one’s brother. One may disapprove of his actions, values, and/or beliefs. However, with brothers there is a bond of love and caring that transcends all differences.

This Shavuot let’s give G-d a gift too: Let’s make this year different by doing just 1 more mitzvah

Question: Should we wash our hands in the bathroom with soap and water, or by pouring water from a vessel with handles three times, alternating hands? I have heard it said that a vessel is used only in the morning upon awakening. What are the rules pertaining to young children? What is the protocol if […]

God and the divine origin of His Torah are facts even though we do not fully comprehend them.

So if we basically live the same life, why should he get eternal reward and not me?”

The question is: What about pidyon haben? Can one give the five sela’im required for pidyon haben to a kohen’s daughter?

In Parshas Pinchas the Torah introduces the Mussaf for Shavuos by describing it as Yom HaBikurim when we bring the new offering.

Rachel was thrown by the sight and began to caringly think whom this person might be.

The desert, with its unearthly silence & emptiness, is the condition in which the Word can be heard

The census focused on the individual, proving each is created as irreplaceable, unique images of God

Jewish survival in a dysfunctional world requires women assuming the role Hashem gave them at Sinai

The Honor Of Reading The Kesubah
‘Witnesses Sign Only After Reading…’
(Kesubos 109a)

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The desert, with its unearthly silence & emptiness, is the condition in which the Word can be heard

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

This week’s parshah inspired the Jubilee 2000 initiative leading to debt cancellation of $34 biilion

Rambam: Eating blood’s forbidden because connected to idolatry;Ramban: We’re affected by what we eat

There is something quite distinctive about the biblical approach to time.

Why should unintentional sins require atonement? What guilt exists when requisite intent is lacking?

Like Shabbat points to something beyond time, the people Israel points to something beyond history

The Sabbath is a full dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass-but will

Jewish prayer is a convergence of 2 modes of biblical spirituality, exemplified by Moses and Aaron

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/numbers-dont-tell-the-story/2012/08/01/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: