Thursday, August 12, 2021

“The fewest of all peoples”: The Improbable History of the Jews

"How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews." William Norman Ewer’s mocking verse, written in the 1920s, has sparked multiple responses. But Ewer is correct that there's something odd about the Jews; why would God choose such a tiny nation? One would think that "in a multitude of people is a king’s honor" (Proverbs 14:28), that bigger is better, and larger nations are far more deserving of the Biblical covenant.

Medieval Christian polemicists would offer this exact argument; the fact that the Jews were a small nation of diminished circumstances proved they had fallen from God’s good graces. Echoing the words of Haman, they would contend that a strange nation that is scattered and dispersed must be unworthy of distinction. Meir ben Simeon of Narbonne, in his 13th-century defense of the Jews, Milkhemet Mitzvah, repeats an attack he had heard from a Christian: "Why do you not leave the Jewish faith? Indeed you see that the Jews have been in exile for a long time and day by day decline. You see, concerning the Christian faith, that the Christians become more exalted day by day and that their success has been notable for a long time. You would live among us in great honor and high status, instead of living, as you now do, in exile, degradation, shame and calumny.” These polemicists argued that the Jews were too small to be significant, and were a dying, disappearing people who had been rejected by God.

Reading the Tanakh offers the opposite conclusion: the Jews were always meant to be a small nation. A verse in this week’s Parsha says so explicitly: "The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the fewest of all peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). Already in the Book of Genesis, the choice of Avraham makes it clear that the Jews were meant to be a small nation. When God makes covenants with Adam and Noach, they were at that time the ancestors of all mankind; those covenants were universal. By contrast, when Avraham and Sarah are appointed to their mission, they are a childless couple, just two people in a world of developing empires and states. Clearly, this is a preview of the future, when their descendants will be one small nation among many.

Being the “fewest” has forged the culture and character of the Jewish people. In order to survive, a small nation needs to be different, and have a different personality. Avraham was a true iconoclast, one who shattered the idols of his era; the Midrash tells us that it was as if the entire world was on one side, and Avraham was on the other. Avraham understood that his mission was not to blindly follow the masses, but to search for a more refined vision; his descendants would need to do the same. In their comments to our Parsha, Rashi and Ramban add two other qualities that a small nation will need: humility and chutzpah. Humility will be needed to endure difficulties and defeats, and not be broken by that hardship. Chutzpah will be needed to defy those who insist Jews convert; they would have to refuse to bow their heads to the demands of the powerful. Being a small, exiled, and persecuted nation requires a unique vision and personality. And that would have been impossible unless the Jews would be willing to embrace smallness, and learn that the way forward is “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). They would need to dig down deep inside to find a way to compensate for their demographic shortcomings. The challenge of being a small nation has transformed the Jews; and being the fewest among the nations might actually be the secret to Jewish survival.

Jewish history astonishes many observers, who cannot understand how this tiny nation has held on. Mark Twain put it best, at the end of an article for Harper's Magazine in 1898:

“To conclude. —If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent. of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of ... He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. 

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

One doesn’t know what the secret is; perhaps it is supernatural, or perhaps not. But I would argue that embracing from the outset that they will be the “fewest of all peoples'' has shaped the Jewish soul, and has forced Jews to use their ingenuity and character to overcome challenges. That has made the Jews antifragile, and allowed them to continue to thrive during chaotic times.

The Jewish story is the story of the power of small, about a small nation that gets very good at beating the odds. And this story is inspiring to anyone, Jewish or not, who faces challenges, and feels that they are too feeble and limited to overcome them. 



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