Va’etchanan – Strength in (Small) Numbers
Toward the end of the Parsha (7:7) Moshe assures the people that they needn’t possess qualities valued by flesh and blood to be valued by the Almighty. Moshe had just told the nation that they are a holy people unto G-d and He has chosen them as a treasured nation.
“Not because you are numerous did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples.”
There would naturally be a feeling of inferiority in a nation that lacks the qualities of other nations, commonly considered qualities of greatness. There were many small peoples. Tribal clans were very numerous, and these tribes were always vulnerable to marauding conquerors, possessing mighty armies that vastly outnumbered these tribes. Such tribes would often be under the thumb of larger kingdoms and would pay taxes or protection money for the privilege of existing.
This raises a question. Just a few weeks ago we read the Torah portion of Balak, painting the Israelite nation as a large and mighty, a nation that inspired fear in the hearts of other nations. Moav and Midian felt compelled to seek means of weakening the Israelites because they did not stand a chance militarily. What then does Moshe mean when he says ‘for you are the fewest of all the peoples?’
Clearly the Torah here is speaking prophetically and not only about the present. While other nations grew, Israel did not. As Rabbi Wein puts it, at the time the Temple stood the Chinese and the Jews numbered almost equal proportions. Look at the number of Chinese there are today and look at the number of Jews. We don’t have many more people that we started off with. Our fate is to remain small, always a tiny minority in the world and most of the time weak. There were numerous times that the Jewish people were powerful. King David’s conquests established Israel as a strong and conquering nation. Solomon further expanded Israel’s influence through diplomacy and wealth. But such times are exceptions historically. Bar Kochva also brought out the strength of Israel in his revolt against the Romans after the Second Temple was destroyed. But for making a few fatal errors he would have succeeded in his revolt and likely would have rebuilt the Temple. Today as well we find Israel to be in a position of strength and Jews around the world are enjoying freedom and opportunity unprecedented in the last 2000 years.
But we remain small. How our numbers are kept low is tragically evident. The terrible persecution in the last century is just the tip of the iceberg. The state of existence of Jews in Europe during just the last half millennium is profoundly difficult to conceive of today, from our place of relative comfort and security. The decrees made by Jewish spiritual leaders 1000 years ago reflect a reality where families did not have any certainty of who was a close relative and who was not. Indeed, there was no guarantee one would be able to identify siblings!
Our Parsha comes to comfort us. G-d does not love us for our numbers; He loves us despite our numbers. Rabbi Noach Orlowek, an educator, counselor and parent of 13, encourages parents to tell their children ‘I love you because you are mine, because you are my child.’ This sends a message that the child does not have to earn this special love from the parent. It establishes an unconditional love and it gives a child the sense of confidence that his value and self-worth is not bound to any accomplishments or performance.
We don’t have to be a nation of wealth and prosperity; we don’t need to show success and strength in numbers to earn G-d’s love and justify being chosen as G-d’s children. He loves us because we are His.
There is another lesson entirely here that we cannot ignore. ‘It is not because we are numerous…’ On the contrary, there is a special advantage of being small. Rabbi Wein often tells a story of a small village including exactly ten Jewish families. There were precisely ten adult males who formed a minyan for prayer day in and day out. Never did they lack a minyan, not when it snowed, not when one was ill. One day G-d helped and an 11th Jewish family moved to the village. And the next morning there was no Minyan.
As long as we are small we know each one of us makes an enormous difference. This is felt profoundly in small Jewish communities where indeed there is no one else to take up the slack. The special place of an individual’s contribution, Moshe tells us, will always be relevant among us ‘for you are the fewest of all the peoples.