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November 28, 2014 / 6 Kislev, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Deuteronomy’

Cleverer than God

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

This Shabbat marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Meir Kahane, may Hashem avenge his murder. To honor his memory, our next two blogs will feature essays he wrote for The Jewish Press, which appear in the incomparably thought-provoking collection of his articles, “Beyond Words.” May his memory be for a blessing.

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Cleverer Than God

By Rabbi Meir Kahane

December 1, 1978

It has been three weeks now since I left Israel to speak to the Jews of the American Galut. My most profound impression has clearly been the attempt of American Jews — especially the practitioners of ritual — to be clever; to be cleverer, cleverer than our Maker. The words of the prophet Isaiah (45:9) ring out across the ages, saying: “Woe to him who argues with his Maker! . . . Shall the clay say to Him who forms it: ‘What are you doing?’”

In every generation this would appear to have been so. The created striving to be cleverer than the Creator. And in every generation, forgetting the words of that Creator: “I made the earth, and created mankind upon it . . . !” (Isaiah, 45:12).

A mere cursory look at the Torah reveals an unmistakable fact: Amidst any and all of the punishments and warnings issued by the Creator, one continually stands out as the ultimate national one: Galut, exile. Whatever else it may be considered: sin, impurity, akin to idol worship — the Galut is, first and foremost, primarily a curse and a punishment. Here are just a few examples:

“And you will perish quickly from off the good Land that the Lord gives you” (Deuteronomy 11:17).

“I call heaven and earth this day to bear witness against you, that you will soon be utterly removed from off the Land, into which you are crossing theJordanto inherit.” (ibid., 4:26)

“That the Land not vomit you out, when you defile it.” (Leviticus 18:28).

And, of course, the two classical Tochachot, admonitions, the first in Leviticus and the other in Deuteronomy. In both, a long series of punishments, and tribulations. In both, curses taking the place of blessings. In both, an escalating warning: “And if you continue to refuse to listen to me . . . ” followed by yet another punishment, worse than those that preceded it.

And in both, the final, ultimate, most dreaded of all punishments: “And the Lord will scatter you among all the nations, from one end of the earth to the other . . . ” (Deuteronomy 28:64).

Galut. Exile. The worst of the punishments, the most dreaded of the curses. To be driven out of our Land. Thus did the Almighty decide to show His wrath and teach the Jew the magnitude and enormity of his sins.

I have seen the Jew of America. Non-observant and observer, both. And they are clever. Cleverer by far than their Maker. For the Almighty planned to “scatter the Jew among all the nations,” and the Jew of Los Angeles and Chicago and Monsey and Boro Park and Monroe and a hundred other fleshpots, winks and sighs: “Very well, then, I suppose I will have to suffer in Los Angeles, Chicago, Monsey, Boro Park and Monroe . . . ”

Really, dear Jew, give the Almighty a little credit for cleverness. Do, indeed, consider that He conceived of your “cleverness” and prepared for it. Are we really so contemptuous of the Creator that we believe that He drives us out of our Land so that we can enjoy a better material life in that Exile that he conceived of as a punishment? Are we, indeed, so irreverent that we truly think that the words of the Torah become a game and a plaything to be outwitted so easily? Ah, what a difficult time we will have in the Galut of Great Neck . . .

No, dear Jew, the G-d of Israel is not as simple and foolish as we think. He did not conceive of the ultimate punishment of a Jewish people driven from their Land, merely to have them enjoy a fabulously better material life in the Exile. For that very same chapter that booms forth: “And the Lord will scatter you among all the nations” continues and decrees: “And among those nations you will find no tranquility, neither will the sole of your foot have rest . . . ”

I watch as the comfortable American Orthodoxy unfolds in Flatbush and Flattest bush. We buy our houses and discuss the inflated price. We furnish them with delectable possessions, above our heads the sheitel, and above that the chandelier. We plan our vacations. We buy our women their expensive garments (lest they be shamed by those that have them). We build a comfortable and relaxed Judaism that mockingly proclaims our clever victory over the plans of our Maker. There is not the slightest serious thought to life inIsrael. There is not the slightest qualm of conscience as we luxuriate in the fleshpots of idol worship. The clay figure basks in the American sun, turns to its Maker and sighs: “And because of our sins we were exiled from our Land.” And having paid the obligatory obeisance, the clay then turns on its color television set to watch the football game, or goes off to purchase a sheitel that will clearly make every male’s eye turn.

Ribono shel Olam, Sovereign of the Universe, what a bitter exile . . .

I offer an urgent suggestion. Let us understand that we are not as clever as we think. Let us understand that the Almighty is a bit wiser than we give Him credit for. If the Galut was conceived by the God of Israel as a curse, then there is nothing that can turn it into a blessing. If it was designed to be a punishment, it can never become a reward. Rationalize away, dear Jew, in the 150 ways that you think you are able to purify the impurity. It is to no avail. Your political science (“But America is different! It is a democracy!”) will not help you. Your religiosity (“But we must stay here to build Yiddishkeit!”) will avail you naught. Be not cleverer than your Creator. “Be not overly wise — why should you destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

That which is crooked cannot be made straight and that which is impure cannot be made holy, and that which was designed as a curse, punishment and tribulation cannot ever, ever be turned into enjoyment, pleasure and permanent safety. For a while, the Almighty may allow us to delude ourselves, hoping we will regain our sanity. He gives us time to do the right thing.

Invariably, we mistake His kindness for our cleverness, but the day of reckoning must come, and does. The lights of the chandeliers dim and then are extinguished. The sheitel withers away, and the impure crawling insect that we “purified” proves to be impure indeed. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is Exile can never be anything but tragedy. Jew, stop listening to those who cannot see. Do not repeat the tragedy of 40 and 50 years ago. Clay, know your place. The Maker is cleverer by far. Go home before it is too late.

Israel, ‘Palestine,’ And The Law Of War (Second of Two Parts)

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Historically, viewed against the background of extensive and unapologetic terrorist perfidy in both Gaza and Lebanon, Israel has been innocent of any alleged disproportionality. All combatants, including all insurgents in Gaza and Lebanon, are bound to comply with the law of war of international law.

This firm requirement derives not only from what is known as the “Martens Clause,” a paragraph that makes its first appearance in the Preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention No. II on land warfare, but additionally from Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions of August 12,1949. It is also found in the two Protocols to these Conventions.

In world politics, reason is often trumped by passion. It has always been easy to condemn Israel with rhythmic chants of “disproportionality.” Yet, competent legal scholars, if honest about their jurisprudential obligations, will acknowledge the illegitimacy of such contrived charges.

Until now, any seemingly disproportionate uses of force by Israel have actually been the permissible outcome of antecedent and perfidious crimes committed by its enemies.

What about charges, over the years, that Israel had committed “aggression” in its Lebanon operations? At Lebanon’s insistence, not Israel’s, a formal state of war has existed between the two tiny countries since the Jewish state first came into existence in May 1948. Only an armistice agreement exists between Israel and Lebanon. Signed on March 23,1949, this was not a war-terminating agreement, but a codified pledge to “cease fire.”

Legally, it is not possible for Israel to commit aggression against Lebanon. This is because the latter already considers itself in a formal condition of belligerency with the Jewish state. Israel cannot commit aggression against another state with which it is already at war.

Faced with multiple and sometimes cooperating enemies on several fronts, who often make no secret of their explicitly genocidal intentions, Israel has adhered faithfully to the law of war. In starkly marked contrast to the conscious indiscriminacy of its terrorist foes in Gaza, Judea/Samaria (West Bank) and Lebanon, Jerusalem has struggled mightily to respect and honor this set of rules – significantly, a set with origins in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy).

The core legal issue in recurrent Middle East conflict is not about Israeli “disproportionality,” or “aggression,” but rather a persistent Arab resort to terrorism and perfidy. Neither principal Palestinian faction has any effective reason to refrain from future terrorism against Israel. Already engaged in far-reaching diplomatic end-runs around Jerusalem, neither Fatah nor Hamas will ever require Prime Minister Netanyahu’s negotiated approval to proceed toward complete Palestinian sovereignty.

The UN could again take up the issue of membership for “Palestine.” Almost certainly, though any such consideration would likely not meet the more stringent requirements of statehood that were established at the 1934 Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (Montevideo Convention), a generally recognized and totally militarized Palestinian state would then become a reality. Should this UN conferral of sovereignty be implemented, Israel’s more limited future will be discoverable in Article 12 of the PA (Fatah) Charter, which calls for “the liberation of Palestine completely….” and in Article 19: “The struggle will not end until the elimination of the Zionist entity and the liberation of Palestine.”

As for the “less moderate” Hamas Covenant (Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement), it begins with Israel’s annihilation: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it….” Worth noting, especially in view of what is happening in Egypt, the Covenant refers to Hamas as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.”

In the Middle East, wishful thinking is always perilous. Over time, Israel’s Arab enemies have generally not demonstrated any observable regard for compliance with the law of war. Once a new Arab state is carved out of Israel’s still-living body, “Palestine” would seize upon now vastly enlarged opportunities for inflicting war and terrorism. It follows that Jerusalem must do whatever it can to prevent Palestinian statehood. It can do this legally.

Finding Moses (Part I)

Friday, September 21st, 2012

As the year draws to a close we have the book of Deuteronomy before us week after week, reviewing many of the halachos and reminding us of our harrowing trek through the wilderness. Moshe Rabbeinu is the stern narrator, guiding us to the very edge of the Promised Land, a final step he will never take. He pleads with God to let him enter the Land to no avail. Finally, “Moses, servant of Hashem, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of Hashem. And He buried him in the depression, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, and no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deut. 34: 5).” We complete our reading of the Torah with tears in our eyes for our faithful teacher, prophet and leader, whose life seems to end in angst and frustration. What was the inner life of our brave and tenacious leader?

Moses at the Red Sea (detail) (ca. 235) fresco at Dura Europos Synagogue
Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

He was everywhere and then mysteriously disappeared in early Jewish Art. In all of the ancient synagogue mosaics that have survived from the first 500 years of the Common Era, not one depicts Moses. And yet in the Dura Europos synagogue murals, created around 235 CE in what is now Syria, we see Moses depicted no less than eight times, easily the most represented figure in all the 28 narratives depicted. We see his rescue from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter in extensive images at Dura featuring Pharaoh, his royal court, the midwives, Yocheved and Miriam, as well as a mysterious female figure fetching the baby Moses from his floating basket. Higher up on the synagogue wall multiple images of Moses are seen; heroically leading us out of Egypt, parting the sea and bringing the sea back to destroy the Egyptian army. Further along he proudly presides and towers over the Miraculous Well (Numbers 21:16-20) that sustained us after Miriam dies. Moses sustains us and then, in this ancient visual narrative, disappears. His poignant death is not even alluded to.

In Ravenna, Italy there flourished a school of Christian mosaic decoration between the 5th to 7th centuries that have yet to be surpassed in beauty and opulence. These churches and monuments formed the capital of the Byzantine Church in Italy, most notably the Basilica of San Vitale (548). These extensive and lush mosaics in the polygonal apse (altar) depict the Empress Theodora on one side and the Emperor Justinian on the other. Immediately adjacent to them are the biblical episodes of Abraham and the Three Angels and the Sacrifice of Isaac opposite the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedech to God. Significantly, Moses is prominently featured three times. He is tenderly guarding his father-in-law’s sheep and right above that is removing his sandals before what appears to be the Burning Bush conflated with the fiery Mountain of Revelation. On the other side is Moses accepting the Law from the Hand of God. In each image Moses is smiling and clean-shaven, depicted with a halo and in typical Byzantine Roman garb that is, for that matter, much like many of the figures in Dura Europos three hundred years earlier.

Moses Tending Sheep and at the Burning Bush (548) mosaic at St. Vitale
Courtesy Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

While for us these narrative episodes depict the beginning of our redemption as a people and the Covenant at Sinai, for Byzantine Christians the meaning was considerably more complex, almost certainly colored by the interpretations of typology. This form of Christian biblical analysis seeks to synthesize events in the Hebrew bible with the Christian scriptures, notable the belief that much of the Tanach is but an allegory that predicts the life of Jesus. Therefore Moses tending sheep foreshadows Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a humble Moses called by God predicts Jesus calling his humble disciples and the giving of the Law at Sinai reflects the new Christian covenant. This was a prominent form of Christian exegesis to give Jewish subjects an explicit Christian meaning from the time of the early Church, flourishing in the Middle Ages and prevalent up through the Protestant Reformation. Parenthetically it should be noted that Jews have used typology as a means of exegesis from the time of the Mechilta of Rabi Ishmael, a 3rd century midrash on Exodus, not to mention the fact that the Ramban was quite fond of this method of analysis based on the maxim, “ma’aseh avot siman levanim.” But one example of this is on the verse; “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years.” …that Jacob’s descent into Egypt alludes to our present exile at the hand of the ‘fourth beast,’ which represents Rome.” (Ramban on Genesis 47:28.) The simple faith of Moses here depicted does not even hint at his tumultuous past nor the burdens of leading a stiff-necked people.

Facebook Stock Drop: Divine Blessing for Marc Zuckerberg

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

If a man is given a financial windfall at the end of his life, what reason does he have to change? How much enjoyment will he get out of it anyway? For an 85 year old, how great is the finest of steaks to you when your body can’t even digest it? If you just received a billion dollars, it could mean that for every good you did in this world, G-d just paid you back in full. When your time comes and the Heavenly Court measures your good deeds against the wrong you did, you will have no merit to your name. All of it was accounted for before your passing.

The Book of Deuteronomy warns of G-d rewarding a man to his end. This is what that refers to.

But what if a man is young? What if he makes a terrible mistake? What if this is a mistake he doesn’t even consider a bad choice? Does this person deserve to be taught a lesson in how to fix himself?

Hashem has just told His children, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Take a look at the most famous member of the People of the Book for 2012: Mark Zuckerberg.

On May 18 his company, Facebook, became a stock on the Nasdaq Exchange. Minutes after trading began the price of FB sailed to $45 a share, valuing Zuckerberg’s 603 million shares at a little more than $27 billion. He became wealthier than George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. Not bad for a twenty something from White Plains, New York.

On May 19 he did something the very same Book of Deuteronomy says a Jew can never do. He married a non-Jewish woman. Why is a Jew not allowed to marry out? Simple. G-d says so. It has nothing do with racism, superiority, exclusiveness, or anything else. One of the 613 Commandments the Creator of Heaven and Earth directs every Jew on Earth to marry another Jew.

Every instance of a Jewish man having relations with a non-Jewish woman is a sin so bad, nobody in Heaven can defend us. When our spouse dies, they go to a different part of the Next World. We don’t even have the consolation that in the afterlife we will see them — ever.

G-d could have allowed Mr. Zuckerberg to roll in his billions. He could have rewarded Mark to his end by not doing anything to help.

Instead, He sent him a tribulation of unprecedented magnitude.

From the moment Mark married a non-Jew, his finances tumbled. Facebook went from an IPO high of $45 a share to $18.03. Mark’s worth went from $27 billion, all his because he was single, to $10.9 billion – half claimable by his wife. His guaranteed assets of $5.45 bil are a whopping $21.5 billion less than what he started with.

It could get worse.

Analysts project Facebook to earn $.63 a share for 2013. The average price to earnings ratio for the Nasdaq 100 is 11.9. Multiply $.63 by 11.9 and you have a 2013 price target of $7.50, bringing Zuckerberg’s fortune down to $4.5 bil – half of which belongs to his wife.

I’ve heard of costly weddings before . . . .

This wasn’t a private lesson given to someone outside the public eye. This is the most well-known Jew on earth. His life is an open book for all of us to study. This act of love to wake up Mr. Zuckerberg also serves as an act of love for all of us. Even with “merely” $2 billion in the bank, he will not go hungry. He will not be wanting.

G-d acted to wake him up without putting him to sleep.

We spend all of our lives pursuing wealth, only to see it all go up in smoke. George Soros will die and his money will be parted from him. Mark Zuckerberg, a young man with a bright future, can easily fix his mistakes and rise to even greater heights. Wasn’t there a time in the 1990s when the once mighty Apple traded for $3 a share? Look at where it came from, how far it fell. See what it has become today.

Greatness Is Humility

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

There is a fascinating detail in the passage about the king in this week’s parshah. The text says that, “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deuteronomy 17:18). He must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break Torah law. But there is also another reason: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Robert Alter). The king had to have humility. The highest in the land should not feel that he is the highest in the land.

This is hugely significant in terms of the Jewish understanding of political leadership. There are other commands directed to the king. He must not accumulate horses so as not to establish trading links with Egypt. He should not have too many wives for “they will lead his heart astray.” He should not accumulate wealth. These were all standing temptations to a king. As we know and as the sages pointed out, it was these three prohibitions that Solomon, wisest of men, broke, marking the beginning of the long slow slide into corruption that marked much of the history of the monarchy in ancient Israel. It led, after his death, to the division of the kingdom.

But these were symptoms, not the cause. The cause was the feeling on the part of the king that, since he is above the people, he is above the law. As the rabbis said (Sanhedrin 21b), Solomon justified his breach of these prohibitions by saying that the only reason that a king may not accumulate wives is that they will lead his heart astray, so I will marry many wives and not let my heart be led astray. And since the only reason not to have many horses is not to establish links with Egypt, I will have many horses but not do business with Egypt. In both cases he fell into the trap that the Torah had warned about. Solomon’s wives did lead his heart astray (1 Kings 11:3), and his horses were imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29). The arrogance of power is its downfall. Hubris leads to nemesis.

Hence the Torah’s insistence on humility, not as a mere nicety, a good thing to have, but as essential to the role. The king was to be treated with the highest honor. In Jewish law, only a king may not renounce the honor due to his role. A parent may do so, so may a rav, so may even a nasi, but not a king (Kiddushin 32a-b). Yet there is to be a complete contrast between the external trappings of the king and his inward emotions.

Maimonides is eloquent on the subject: “Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to revere him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, for as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ [Psalms 109:22]. Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, ‘so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers’ [Deuteronomy 17:20].

“He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, for as it says, ‘Listen my brothers and my people….’ [1 Chronicles 28:2], and similarly, ‘If today you will be a servant to these people…’ [1 Kings 12:7].

“He should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: ‘What are we? Your complaints are not against us’ [Exodus 16:8]. He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6).

The model is Moses, described in the Torah as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12: 3). “Humble” here does not mean diffident, meek, self-abasing, timid, bashful, demure, or lacking in self-confidence. Moses was none of these. It means honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said (Avot 4:1), “Who is honored? One who honors others.” This led to one of the great rabbinic teachings, contained in the siddur and said on Motzaei Shabbat:

The Politics Of Freedom

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Having set out the broad principles of the covenant, Moses now turns to the details, which extend over many chapters and several parshiyot. The long review of the laws that will govern Israel in its land begin and end with Moses posing a momentous choice. Here is how he frames it in this week’s parshah:

“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse – the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).

And here is how he puts it at the end:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil … I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19).

Maimonides takes these two passages as proof of our belief in freewill (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:3), which indeed they are. But they are more than that. They are also a political statement. The connection between individual freedom (which Maimonides is talking about) and collective choice (which Moses is talking about) is this: If humans are free, then they need a free society within which to exercise that freedom. The book of Devarim represents the first attempt in history to create a free society.

Moses’s vision is deeply political but in a unique way. It is not politics as the pursuit of power or the defense of interests or the preservation of class and caste. It is not politics as an expression of national glory and renown. There is no desire in Moses’s words for fame, honor, expansion, or empire. There is not a word of nationalism in the conventional sense. Moses does not tell the people that they are great. He tells them that they have been rebellious, they have sinned, and that their failure of faith during the episode of the spies cost them forty extra years of delay before entering the land. Moses would not have won an election. He was not that kind of leader.

Instead he summons the people to humility and responsibility. We are the nation, he says in effect, that has been chosen by God for a great experiment. Can we create a society that is not Egypt, not empire, not divided into rulers and ruled? Can we stay faithful to the more-than-human hand that has guided our destinies since I first stood before Pharaoh and asked for our freedom? For if we truly believe in God – not God as a philosophical abstraction but God in whose handwriting our history has been written, God to whom we pledged allegiance at Mount Sinai, God who is our only sovereign – then we can do great things.

Not great in conventional terms, but great in moral terms. For if all power, all wealth, all might belongs to God, then none of these things can rightfully set us apart one from another. We are all equally precious in His sight. We have been charged by Him to feed the poor and bring the orphan and widow, the landless Levite and non-Israelite stranger, into our midst, sharing our celebrations and days of rest. We have been commanded to create a just society that honors human dignity and freedom.

Moses insists on three things: First that we are free. The choice is ours. Blessing or curse? Good or evil? Faithfulness or faithlessness? You decide, says Moses. Never has freedom been so starkly defined, not just for an individual but also for a nation as a whole. We do not find it hard to understand that as individuals we are confronted by moral choices. Adam and Eve were. So was Cain. Choice is written into the human condition.

But to be told this as a nation – this is something new. There is no defense, says Moses, in protestations of powerlessness – saying that we could not help it. We were outnumbered. We were defeated. It was the fault of our leaders or our enemies. No, says Moses, your fate is in your hands. The sovereignty of God does not take away human responsibility. To the contrary, it places it center stage. If you are faithful to God, says Moses, you will prevail over empires. If you are not, nothing else – not military strength nor political alliances – will help you.

Numbers Don’t Tell The Story

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

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.

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

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