In this week’s parsha, Vayeira, we read about the blessing that G-d gave to Abraham: “I will surely bless you and I will make your descendants numerous like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore.” Last week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, also had such a promise – twice, in fact – in chapter 13 as well as in chapter 15. We were promised many times that we will be great in number.
Yet the world Jewish population is approximately 14 million, out of a total world population of 7 billion, according to recent statistics. Jews comprise but a fraction of the world population – roughly 0.2%. How do we understand the blessing of being great in number, when clearly we are such a tiny fraction of the world population and have always been so?
It’s not about quantity
One thing is clear – not just from history but from the Torah itself – and that is that these blessings were never intended to be blessings of quantity. Here are some proofs to this: the very first chapter of Deuteronomy, verse 10, says: “The Lord your G-d has increased you and behold today you are as numerous as the stars for the multitudes.” In numerous places in the Chumash, we find a census being taken to count the Jewish people in the desert, and we know there were 600 000 men who left Egypt. Add an equivalent number of women, and that totals 1.2 million; taking children and the elderly into account, we are looking at a population of a maximum of 3 million people. So why would the Torah say, at the end of the forty years, “behold today you are as numerous as the stars” when there are a lot more than 3 million stars? Elsewhere, in chapter 13 of the Book of Genesis, it says: “Your descendants will be so numerous like the dust of the earth such that no person will be able to count them.” Clearly, the analogy to the dust of the earth and the stars of the heavens is not talking about quantity.
An even stronger proof than this is in chapter 7 of Deuteronomy, verses 6 and 7, where G-d says to the people “you are a holy nation to the Lord your G-d and you the Lord your G-d has chosen to be precious amongst the nations on the face of the earth; not because you are the most numerous of the nations has G-d desired to choose you, because you are [indeed] the fewest of the nations. Rather, it was out of the love G-d had for you and His loyalty to the oath that He has made to your forefathers that He has brought you out from the house of slavery.” Thus we see clearly that G-d has chosen us not because we are the most numerous; on the contrary – we are fewest in number among the nations. This is another proof from the Torah that these blessings are not referring to sheer quantity.
What, then, does it mean to be like the “stars of the heaven” and the “dust of the earth”?
Quality and quantity
Rav Mecklenberg, a 19th-century German commentator, gives an answer in his commentary Haktav Vehakabala. He refers to verse quoted above from Genesis chapter 13 verse 16, which says: “I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth, if a person will be able to count the dust of the earth so, too, will he be able to count your descendants.” The word limnot is used in the verse, and is often translated as “to count”; meaning, just as no one is able to count the dust of the earth, so too no one will be able to count your descendants. But Rav Mecklenburg says the word limnot actually means to ascribe importance to something, similar to the word lemanot, to appoint someone to a position of power. The meaning of the blessing, according to Rav Mecklenberg, is that your descendants are going to be important to the world in the same way that the earth is important. The earth is the basis for human civilisation; without it there would be no place for human beings to thrive. G-d was saying to Abraham, your descendants are going to be as important as the earth is to human civilisation. They are going to carry an important message to the world. Rav Mecklenberg references this interpretation to the Book of Exodus, in chapter 16, verse 15, where the manna from heaven is called mahn in Hebrew. There is a debate among the commentators as to what the word mahn means. He says the word mahn actually means something of importance. The people could see the manna was food of importance so they called it mahn from the Hebrew word limnot. Thus, says Rav Mecklenberg, G-d is not making a promise of quantity but a promise of quality: your descendants will be of such importance and will make a vital contribution to the world. This promise and blessing of G-d has indeed been fulfilled.
A similar interpretation is given by the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who comments on last week’s parsha, where G-d takes Abraham outside and says to him look at the heavens and count the stars. If you are able to count them, so too will be your descendants. The Netziv says this promise of being like the stars means that the Jews will be people of brilliance and radiance. G-d blessed Abraham that his descendants would be like stars, lighting up the world and making a major contribution to the world, in greater proportions than any other people.
The Netziv interprets the verse quoted earlier: “It is not because you are the most numerous of the nations that I have chosen you,” to mean I have not chosen you because you are, proportionately, the most luminous of the stars among the nations. In fact, says the Netziv, a person’s sense of stardom and feelings of power, brilliance and talent are often an impediment to serving G-d and accepting His authority. Thus, according to the Netziv, G-d is saying, you are the least likely to be able to serve Me properly, because of your brilliance. Yet I have chosen you because I love you, and because of the promise I made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Both the Netziv and Rav Mecklenberg say we are talking about quality. The Netziv adds the aspect of quantity of the quality – in other words, the proportionality of it. The impact of the Jews is so large, and this is what G-d meant when he said to Abraham your descendants are going to be such that people are not going to be able to count them. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to count because they are so many, but rather that they are not going to be able to attribute a number to them because of the sheer impact of the quality of the people.
Defying the normal laws of history
There is one more explanation, from the Kli Yakar, who writes on these verses that the comparison of the multitudes to sand is specifically k’chol asher al s’fat ha’yam, “the sand of the seashore”, because the blessing is referring to the eternity of the Jewish people. Just like the sand on the seashore is so vulnerable to the enormous waves, which come crashing against it and threaten to wash it away and yet the seashore remains, so too the Jews have faced enemy after enemy, generation after generation and have not been washed away. Whether it was the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Crusades, Cossacks, Communists, the Nazis and now the bitter struggle in the Land of Israel, we have been promised that ultimately we are going to be like the sand on the beach, always there, holding the line no matter what and not getting washed away. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses how Jewish history defies the laws of nature. The birth of Yitzchak itself defies the normal laws of nature – Abraham was a hundred years old, Sarah was ninety, and they had an only son; what are the chances of this little family becoming a great nation? And yet from this rickety beginning came a great nation. The way Rabbi Hirsch explains it, G-d specifically wanted Jewish history to stem from a rickety foundation – a very old couple with an only son – to make it clear that this is not a people like any other. Our foundations and indeed the entire history of our continued existence defy all laws of nature. We exist on a higher, miraculous plane and are therefore eternal, as G-d promised to Abraham thousands of years ago.
This is something that is quite extraordinary about the Jewish people; we defy the laws of history. There is no people as eternal as we are, having survived against all the odds, having been exiled from the Land of Israel, and having spent 2 000 years in exile. By the normal laws of history, we shouldn’t be here. This is a remarkable achievement and a testimony to G-d’s eternal blessing. I experienced this myself a few years ago while attending the Conference of European Rabbis in Warsaw, the largest gathering of rabbis in Warsaw since the Second World War. To see such a huge gathering of rabbis and heads of various Batei Din from all over Europe all coming together in this city, which saw so much devastation, was a loud declaration that we Jews are still here. No matter what happens, there is a promise of continuity, of the eternity of the Jewish people.