web analytics
October 2, 2014 / 8 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post
Meir Panim with Soldiers 5774 Roundup: Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.



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.

There was a moment when Jews might have sought to convert others. (To be sure, there was one instance when they did. The Hasmonean priest-king John Hyrcanus I forcibly converted the Edomites, known as the Idumeneans. Herod was one of their numbers.) The period in question was the Roman Empire in the first century. Jews numbered some 10 percent of the empire, and there were many Romans who admired aspects of their faith and way of life. The pagan deities of the Hellenistic world were losing their appeal and plausibility, and throughout the centers of the Mediterranean, individuals were adopting Jewish practices. Two aspects of Judaism stood in their way: the commandments and circumcision. In the end, Jews chose not to compromise their way of life for the sake of making converts. The Hellenistic people who sympathized with Judaism mostly adopted Pauline Christianity instead. Consistently throughout history, Jews have chosen to be true to themselves and to stay small rather than make concessions for the sake of increasing their numbers.

Why have Divine providence or human choice, or both, eventuated in the sheer smallness of the Jewish people? Could it be, quite simply, that through the Jewish people God is telling humankind that you do not need to be numerous to be great? Nations are not judged by their size but by their contribution to the human heritage. Of this the most compelling proof is that a nation as small as the Jews could produce an ever-renewed flow of prophets, priests, poets, philosophers, sages, saints, halachists, aggadists, codifiers, commentators, rebbes and roshei yeshivot; that they could also yield some of the world’s greatest writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, academics, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and technological innovators. Out of all proportion to their numbers Jews could and can be found working as 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 they can have, of making each of us feel part of a collective responsibility to ameliorate the human condition, and a willingness to take high ideals and enact them in the real world, unswayed by disappointments and defeats.

Nowhere is this more in evidence today than among the people of Israel in the State of Israel: traduced in the media and pilloried by much of the world, yet still, year after year, producing 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’s words: “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.”

Small? Yes. Still surrounded, as the Israelites were then, by “nations larger and stronger than you.” But that small people, defying the laws of history, outlived all the world’s great empires, and still has a message of hope for humanity. You don’t have to be large to be great. If you are open to a power greater than yourself, you will become greater than yourself. Israel today still carries that message to the world.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).

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.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Car Smashed in A-Tur 2
4 Women Survive Near Lynch on Mount of Olives
Latest Judaism Stories
Parsha-Perspectives-NEW

Often in life we become stuck – stuck in the morass of our habits and the rote of our comfort level.

PTI-100314

There is one day of the year on which the Satan has no power: Yom Kippur.

Neihaus-100314

During shmittah we refrain from agricultural activities and collection of loans, and on Yom Kippur we refrain from all physical pleasures.

Daf-Yomi-logo

A Miraculous Visual Treat
‘They Lifted It Up To Show…’
(Chagiga 26b)

Question: I recently loaned money to a friend who has been able to repay only part of it. This was an interest-free loan. We exchanged a signed IOU, not a proper shtar with witnesses, since I have always trusted her integrity and only wanted a document that confirms what was loaned and what was repaid. Now that shemittah is approaching, what should I do? Should I forgive the loan? And if my friend is not able to repay it, may I deduct the unpaid money from my ma’aser requirement?

Name Withheld

What right do I, sinner, have to approach Hashem and request forgiveness?

Throughout the war, Akiva had several brief furloughs home, and each time exchanged whichever mishnayos volume he had finished for the next in the series.

Imagine a man who, after having a few too many drinks, gets into his car and begins driving. It takes a while before he is pulled over, but finally the police arrest him, and he stands trial for driving while intoxicated.

Mr. Fisher contacted Rabbi Dayan. “Am I allowed to use money of ma’aser kesafim to pay the shul for an aliyah that I bought?” he asked.

In addition to Yom Kippur, there is at least one other instance when a person may fast on Shabbat – the case of a ta’anit chalom, in which a person wishes to fast to prevent an ominous dream from becoming reality.

Others suggest that one cannot separate Shabbos from Yom Kippur by accepting Shabbos early.

The call of the shofar is eternal. It is not musical. Its magnetic allurement cannot be explained.

Ba’al Shem Tov: “Hashem, too, is crying; as much as He is looking for us, we rarely look for Him.”

When we cry from the heart, someone listens; When we cry on Yom Kippur, God hears us.

Contrary to popular belief, the Talmud never explicitly limits the ban on footwear to leather shoes.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

When we cry from the heart, someone listens; When we cry on Yom Kippur, God hears us.

Rabbi Sacks

Who am I? What are the most important things in my life? What do I want to be remembered for? If, as a purely hypothetical exercise, I were to imagine reading my own obituary, what would I want it to say? These are the questions Rosh Hashanah urges us to ask ourselves. As we pray […]

Simply, for Rambam the number 14 (2×7) was his favored organizing principle.

Torah isn’t a theological treatise or a metaphysical system but a series of stories linked over time

We believe that God created each of us, regardless of color, class, culture or creed, in His image.

Judaism is a religion of love but also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts.

Culture is not nature. There are causes in nature, but only in culture are there meanings.

Blind obedience is not a virtue in Judaism. God wants us to understand the laws He has commanded us

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: