Weekly Torah Commentary — V’etchanan August 8, 2014

Deuteronomy/Devarim 3:23-7:11

As we plunge a bit further in to the Book of Deuteronomy, we see Moses reminding the children of Israel of their distinct and unusual calling:

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deut. 4: 32-34)

As these words are being recorded, the children of Israel have not yet entered their own land. They are not yet a sovereign nation, except in vision. Yet Moses wanted to impress on their collective psyche the certainty that they were a people unlike any other nation. God Himself had called them to greatness and their experience at Sinai was unique in world history.

Moses repeats the critically important passage that has become the primary expression of Judaism’s faith: “Hear (listen) O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

In the continuing narrative he will remind them, not once but twice that they must teach their children what was transmitted at Sinai. Furthermore, he declares their eternal mission statement in no uncertain words: “You are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deut. 7: 6)

The next line is very curious:

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. (Deut. 7: 7)

Now hold on! Didn’t God promise Abraham that his children would be as numerous as the stars of the sky? And the grains of sand on the seashore? And didn’t Moses just say a few verses earlier: “The LORD your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deut. 1: 10)?

What gives here? How can he now declare that they are the “fewest of all peoples”?

Yes, in fact the children of Israel were far more numerous now than they used to be. When they descended to Egype, they were a company of seventy souls; a single family. Now they are a nation of twelve tribes!

Yet, compared to other nations of the world, they are still pretty small and he drives the point home by listing the nations they would have to overcome when they entered the Land: “…the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you …” (7:1). Israel was not only smaller than the great empires of that day, they were even small compared to the nations immediately in front of them.

Wasn’t that discouraging? Why would Moses say such a thing? Because he knew them so well. Look at this verse: “You may say to yourselves, “These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?” Now here’s the salient point: “But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. (Deut. 7: 17-18) Moses wanted to impress upon them that the fear that had plagued them in earlier situations in the desert must not plague them when they enter the Land.

In God’s eternal wisom, He decreed that Israel would be the smallest of nations for a reason that speaks directly to its divine calling. Israel is to show the rest of the world that a people does not have to be numerous in order to be great. Israel’s unique history has demonstrated over and over again that by faith in the Holy One who chose them and delivered them from Egypt, they do not need large numbers to conquer their enemies. Victory will come “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Zech. 4:6)

This proclamation of Moses has been fleshed out in Israel’s history to this very day. It is a nation who by being small, becomes a unique and abiding testimony to the One Who is greatest of all. It is a fact that Jews have impacted the world in a way that is completely out of proportion to their numbers. In science, in medicine, in literature, in music, in technology Jews have excelled. But it is not for themselves; it is because this people was chosen to take responsibility, to make a difference in the lives of others, to contribute significantly to the betterment of this world; ultimately, to demonstrate the presence of God to a floundering world.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Gandhi said: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

This concept is embedded in the Jewish consciousness. One person, one small group, can change the world. Israel is called to model that; it is part of our calling to be a ‘light to the nations’. But understand this: it was never intended as a private possession of the Jews, unavailable to the rest of the world. It’s our job to demonstrate it; it’s the job of the rest of the nations to follow the example.

In Tune with Torah this week = one person can change history. How are YOU doing?

I look forward to your comments.

Shabbat shalom

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