Parshat Bechukotai begins by stating that when the Torah is studies and observed an abundance of blessing results. “If in my statutes you will walk and my commandments you observe… …and five of you shall pursue one hundred [enemies] and one hundred of you shall pursue ten thousand…” (Leviticus 26:8)
How is it possible that so few can overcome so many? The odds of five against one hundred is overwhelming, and the odds of one hundred against ten thousand is even greater! Even Moses, the great man of faith, was credulous when God promised to feed the entire assembly of Israel with meat, as it was such a tall order. How are we to reconcile the promise of the few overcoming such odds, when that runs so counter to our experiential reason?
The Ramban’s commentary on Bamidbar discusses the census that was taken to determine the number of families in the Israelite camp. Ramban acknowledges the problem with counting Jews by number, and asserts that they were surely counted according to coins collected, just as with the previous census in the book of Exodus. Ramban grapples with the census taken by David during his reign, however, after which thousands of Jews died in a plague. Ramban does not accept that David was not familiar with the danger of counting Jews by number, as the Torah explicitly states that they shall be counted by contributions “so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them.” (Ex. 30:12) The Ramban therefore suggests other failings in David’s census that led to the plague.
In any event, Jews are very careful to avoid counting people directly, instead counting hats, hands or other representative of people rather than the people themselves. It is common, when counting a minyan, that a ten-word verse is recited, one word per person present. If two words remain at the end the counter knows that the group is two short of a minyan.
Why is it so problematic to count Jews? Why is this such a sensitive issue for us? Why did this generate a plague in David’s time? Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky suggests that the answer might lie in the blessings given to the patriarchs. They were assured several times that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heaven, the dust of the earth and the sand of the sea. Ostensibly this blessing never materialized. The people of Israel have always been a tiny minority of the world, very much quantifiable. In fact, the Torah itself guarantees that the people of Israel will always remain the smallest of nations, in apparent contravention to His promise to the Patriarchs. “Not because of your multitudes has God desired you from all the nations, for you are the smallest of all the nations.” (Deuteronomy 7:7)
The intent of the blessings, then, is not about quantity, it is about quality. The Patriarchs were blessed that their descendants would have no limit to their potential. Even though they are few their accomplishments can be astronomical as the stars of the heaven and their influence can be as wide as the breadth of the sea shore.
We don’t need vast numbers to be a great people. We have a gift of bucking the trend; our strength lie not in numbers but in our capacity. The story of Chanukah marvels at the many falling in the hands of the few. The mighty Greek armies were no match for the few ragtag, traditional Jews, who fought their powerful cavalries with pitchforks and hoes. Those few, poorly armed Jews were equipped with a promise of greatness, an assurance that they had no limits despite their low numbers. This same strength is reflected in the subsequent miracle in the Temple. They found only a small quantity of oil to use for the kindling of the Menorah. But the quantity didn’t matter. What logically should have fueled the flame for just one day continued to provide fuel for eight days, demonstrating again that Israel is capable of transcending natural limitations.
This is reflected again when we look at the economic clout of tiny Israel. A nation comprising only a few million people, a small fraction of the population average countries contain, has more companies trading on NASDAQ than nearly any other country, trailing only the US and China.
This same tiny nation develops medicine, technology and ideas which are found in every corner of the earth.
This is how, vastly outnumbered, a country with fewer than one million Jews defeated five invading armies in 1948, armed with old rifles and a few smuggled pieces of artillery. Oh, and determination. Five of you shall pursue one hundred, no kidding! Of course the odds were impossible, but this was God’s blessing. Israel has no limits, they are like the stars of the heavens.
This was again illustrated fifty years ago, when this same tiny Israel overcame incredible odds and not only avoided annihilation but expanded its borders several times over in the course of just six days.
So why don’t we count Jews? Well, perhaps it is because numbers are immaterial. (there are current investigations into allegations that the kashrut branch of the Jerusalem rabbinate has supervisors who clock up to 27 hours of work per day! Who knew that this was possible? But then, anything is possible for a Jew.) We don’t reduce Jews to numbers. We don’t limit a Jew to a specific quantity. The result of such quantification in David’s time was the death of many, because quantifying Jews means placing limits on them, and the greatest limitation is death. We have so much to be grateful for, so much that we have accepted as granted. It is important to remember the tremendous capacity we have been blessed with at every possible occasion, not least Yom Yerushalaim, which marks such a dramatic illustration of the blessings we find in Parshat Bechukotai.
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