June 21, 2024
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Small Numbers of Jews

Judaism has the lowest number of adherents of all the world’s major religions (see, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_religious_populations). Our numbers are dramatically lower than almost all other nations. Why is the am segula—Hashem’s special nation—so small?

Planned Small Size

Our low population is deliberate and predicted twice in sefer Devarim (4:27 and 7:6-8). So, why does Hashem desire our numbers to be so small? We suggest several reasons.

Hashem’s and Our Humility

One would expect Hashem to desire His people to be a large-sized nation. Mishlei (14:28) states, “B’rov am hadrat melech—the king is exalted with great multitudes.” However, Hashem prefers modesty and subtlety. Yishayahu HaNavi (45:15) describes Hashem as Keil mistateir, a hiding God. Hashem likes to hide, so we must seek Him and forge a relationship with Him.

In H.W. Brands’ biography of Ben Franklin entitled, “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin,” he records that Franklin rejected belief in the Sinaitic revelation, because he thought God would have revealed Himself to the entire world. While an accomplished person in many areas, Franklin was a poor theologian. His question indicates his failure to grasp Hashem’s preference for subtlety.

We also mirror Hashem’s humility, as Rashi to Devarim 7:7 teaches. Rashi explains Hashem’s great love for Am Yisrael stems from our humility. Rashi contrasts the haughty expressions of powerful non-Jewish emperors—such as Nevuchadnetzar, Sancheirev and Chiram—who arrogantly proclaimed themselves as powerful as Hashem. In dramatic contrast, our role models—Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen—are paradigms of humility. Avraham Avinu compares himself to dust and ashes, and Moshe and Aharon say about themselves, “V’nachnu mah.” Our small population reflects our humble nature.

Tuvia Macklin—a thoughtful Torah Academy of Bergen County alumnus—remarked that Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility convinces him of the Torah’s authenticity. Despising self-aggrandizement mirrors the ardent pursuit of truth, the Torah’s lifeblood. The humble ones—Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohein—have withstood the test of time, unlike the arrogant Hiram, Sacheirev and Nevuchadneztar whose nations have been consigned to history’s dustbin.

Quality and Not Quantity

Hashem is interested in commitment, not numbers. We mirror this attitude regarding conversion. Unlike other religions that look for many adherents to glorify their cause, we do not convert someone just because they express interest. Instead, proper batei din ensure converts are profoundly committed to keeping the mitzvot before admitting newcomers to our fold. Hashem is not interested in people joining His nation, because we are the “winning team de jour.”

Unfortunately, we have had negative experiences with converts joining us at the peak of success, as did the eruv rav during Yetziat Mitzrayim and Shlomo HaMelech’s converted wives. The Jewish people are the bearers of the prophetic message. In the words of Yishayahu HaNavi (43:12)we are Hashem’s witnesses—since we testify generation-to-generation about Hashem—as the descendants of the nation that witnessed Yetziat Mitzrayim, Kriat Yam Suf and Maamad Har Sinai. We are nothing less than the Torah’s living companion volume!

As such, a Jew must be doggedly committed to observing the Torah, even in the most difficult circumstances. Otherwise, Judaism would be unable to survive and thrive. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik has observed that the masses are not suited for such a challenging task.

A famous story is related about Rav Yonatan Eibschutz that a gentile sage asked him; the Torah dictates that one must follow the majority as it says in Exodus 23:2. If so, should not all Jews convert to Christianity, since Christians outnumber Jews? Rav Eibschutz replied that majority rule prevails only in doubtful matters. Jews, however, are quite certain about the truthfulness of their religious beliefs.

Human nature follows the herd. Steadfast fortitude and courage are required to run counter to the general flow. Yet, with great grit and determination, the faithful among the tiny Jewish nation—the minority within a small minority—hold steady and firm to live and proclaim Hashem’s word.

L’havdil, the Jewish people bring to mind the United States Marine Corps motto, “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” “This slogan reflects the unique character of the Marine Corps and underscores the high caliber of those who join and serve their country as Marines,” said Major General Richard T. Tryon, commanding general of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.

It is a great privilege to be a Jew bearing the divine message. We express our thrill to be among the few (and the humble—not the proud—as we discussed) in our tefillot, where we proclaim, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu,” and “V’yatziv, v’nachon, v’nechmad, v’na’im, v’adir,” is our Torah mission.

Fulfilling Contradictory Prophecies

Our small population advances in emunah. A dramatic demonstration of the Torah’s divine origin is the fulfillment of the Torah’s contradictory predictions. Hashem promises Avraham Avinu (Bereishit 12:3) and Yaakov Avinu (Bereishit 28:14) that their descendants will bring blessings to the world. Yet, the Torah predicts that Jewish people will remain small in number.

Nonetheless, the basic noble values of western society—such as kindness to the weakest members of the community, honoring parents, and a day of rest—all emanate from the teachings of the Torah. David Brooks wrote (January 11, 2010, “The Tel Aviv Cluster.” The New York Times, page A23): “Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2% of the world population, but 54% of the world chess champions, 27% of the Nobel physics laureates and 31% of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2% of the U.S. population, but 21% of the Ivy League student bodies, 26% of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37% of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38% of those on a recent business week list of leading philanthropists and 51% of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.”

The state of Israel contributes breakthroughs in technology, medicine and science—far beyond any reasonable expectations of a country with a relatively small population. As of 2018, tiny Israel has the third largest number of companies listed on the tech-heavy NASDAQ exchange in the world.

In addition, sefer Devarim warns that if we are exiled due to sin, “You will be a source of astonishment, a parable, and a conversation piece, among all the peoples where Hashem will lead us,” (Devarim 28:37).

The Torah predicts that the world will be obsessed with tiny people. One would hardly expect such a prediction to materialize. Yet, it has! Who could have made such astonishingly contradictory, yet fulfilled predictions other than Hashem?! Once again, the Torah’s predicting our tiny population supports belief in the Torah’s divine authorship.

Our legacy of the few defeating the many persists through the generations. From Avraham defeating the four mighty Mesopotamian armies with only 313 men, Gidon defeating the masses of Midyan with only a handful of soldiers, the Chanukah victory of the tiny Hasmoneans over the great Greek army—through the state of Israel’s ongoing 75 year “rabbim b’yad me’atim” miracle—the theme of a small number of Jews defeating a much larger enemy runs deeply and consistently. No wonder why Hashem wants us to remain small. He manifests His enduring presence, through our dogged persistence and perseverance against staggering odds.

Conclusion

Sefer Devarim teaches that we, Jews, are destined to be a small nation. We embrace this role—for while it might have been easier to be a member of a people of great numbers—so many facets of the unique character of our people are expressed by our small numbers. As a famous Yiddish aphorism goes, “the smaller the group, the greater the joy!”


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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