The Torah teaches that “G-d did not desire us or choose us because we are more numerous than the other nations, for we are the fewest of all the peoples” (Devarim 7:7) But why would we think otherwise ? As the commentator Rashbam asks: did Moshe really believe that the Jewish people thought that G-d had chosen us because of our numerical superiority ? It is obviously not so. So what exactly is the point that Moshe was making?
On a superficial level, people are always impressed by the most, of anything. The largest country in population (China), the largest country in size (Russia), the most, the greatest, the fastest, the smartest, even the most home runs (however they were hit). It makes for interesting conversation, but what is the difference really ? Numbers do not impress us. There are more than a billion Christians and more than a billion Moslems in the world, but we are “the fewest of nations,” infinitesimal on the world stage. Clearly, we are taught that G-d’s designation of the Jewish people was not dependent on numbers, and nor is our destiny.
There is a deeper point as well. The Torah is teaching us that numbers not only do not determine worth, but they are never a significant factor in assessing the state of Jewish life. Notwithstanding that, we have such a numbers obsession in Jewish life that one would think, firstly, that the Torah posited such a viewpoint, and secondly, that our future existence is based completely on maintaining some arbitrary figure, some critical mass of Jews. We have such a numbers obsession that even hearing this iconoclasm, you must think that I am in need of a vacation.
The fact is that numbers have never mattered for much in Jewish life. There are as many Jews today as there was before World War I, and 5,000,000 more than in 1882. There are perhaps 10% more Jews alive today than at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. We never grow that much, the enduring legacy of both assimilation and persecution. But here is another way to look at it: the world has tripled in size since the start of World War I, and we have stayed the same; but have we fallen off the map ? Are Jews unknown in the world ? We have gone from being .006 of the world’s population, to being .002. Are we less influential ? Are we harder to find ? Do we find it harder to get our names in the newspapers ? They still know where to find us, even though we are “the fewest of nations.” There are almost three times as Daoists in the world as there as Jews, and ten times more Yoruba. Go figure.
We have been conditioned to believe that numbers matter. We hear constantly that we need to boost our numbers, especially by making peace with intermarriage, and especially today by broadening our base by accepting converts who are not sincere about a Jewish commitment. If we write off the intermarried, the argument goes, our numbers shrink. If we do not embrace his non-Jewish wife and children, we will not achieve some numerical quota that we have apparently set for ourselves. It is the same reason that compels Jews to initiate a program of mass conversions, regardless of commitment, to boost Israel’s population, to ensure that we meet an artificial target that, if reached, will ensure Jewish survival. It has even led some to argue that the definition of Jewishness should be “any person that Hitler would have murdered” (i.e., a person with even one Jewish grandparent, sometimes one Jewish great-grandparent), leading to the macabre result that they have designated Hitler as the posek for the Jewish people, the decisor of Jewish law and identity. Talk about posthumous victories; that indeed would be an ultimate triumph. Fortunately, we are able to rely on the Torah to adjudicate these matters, and not a diabolical, pathological, mass murderer.
We are the smallest of nations, and every nation needs people to survive. We do, too, but more than some arbitrary number of people, we need good Jews, Jews who make a difference, Jews who want to be Jews – not just Jews in name, who will just pay dues or have to chased down to pay their dues, or Jews whom our enemies flesh out. “For you are a holy people, and G-d chose you to be His people” (Devarim 7:6), and therefore there are as many Jews at any one moment as G-d determines He needs for His purposes. There are never too few or too many; it is always just right. That “you are not more numerous” means that every Jew is precious, but that abstract numbers mean nothing at all. We are not trying to meet a particular quota.
We need good Jews. Capricious figures plucked out of the air avoid dealing with the main issue: how do we produce good Jews, Jews who make a difference, who make their mark in the public domain in a way that reflects well on all of us. For example, an observant woman named Wendy Shalit became a counter-cultural phenomenon in the last decade, writing books encouraging a “Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue” and “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect”, about modesty and self-respect for young women in the world at large, about how young women need not ape the immodest fashions or behavioral trends in order to win friends.
Even in our world we struggle with this aspect of human dignity. There are religious girls who are forced to wear modest clothing to school – RULES – whose parents don’t mind them dressing down (or skimpier) on the weekends. They send a terrible (and awfully) mixed message. But this issue has only slowly entered the secular discourse, and to achieve that – to have a religious Jewish woman in the forefront of a moral issue (instead of evangelicals or Moslems) – is a sanctification of G-d’s name. One Wendy Shalit is more meaningful that any 50 Jews in Hollywood who debase the culture. But you wouldn’t know it because of our numbers obsession.
The day will come, the prophet Zecharia said, when “ten non-Jews will grab the coat of a Jew and say ‘let us go with you, because we have heard that G-d is with you.’” The nations will ultimately turn to us and say “teach us.”
But are we ready for that moment ? Do we have what to teach ? Are we secure in our values, and are we still shaped by the common culture and its frequent tawdriness ?
So why did G-d give us the Torah ? The Ramban here quotes the Talmud (Beitza 25b) that we were given the Torah because we are a tough people – a people that can withstand all the blandishments, allures and threats of the world, and endure all trials and tribulations tossed our way. We need strong Jews, not Jews who desire special accommodations because they cannot resist temptation, nor Jews who are easily broken by misfortune or prone to despair. We are the people who are eternally comforted, and therefore never lose faith in G-d or in His Torah.
The prophet Isaiah (40:3) declared that our task is always to clear the path for G-d, to build a straight road for His seekers – not one with detours, excursions, amusing twists and turns – to keep it straight and simple. Then we will merit the days of understanding and faith, with all Jews present and accounted for, and enjoy the fruits of a glorious redemption, for us and all mankind.