Dear Rabbi Fried,
In Genesis 21:9 the Lord said for Abraham to look at the stars: “See if you can count them. As many stars as there are up in the heavens, so many will be the children of your family.” The Lord also promised that Ishmael will have many children and God will make of him a great nation. In conclusion God promised that both Isaac and Ishmael will be the fathers of great nations. My question is that today there are 12 million Jews who came from Isaac and over 1 billion Muslims that came from Ishmael! What happened? If Isaac inherited the covenant, why is there such a huge difference in the numbers of descendants today? Why are there so many more Muslims than Jews?
Your question as to the very small size of the Jewish people was raised by the great Spanish Jewish philosopher R’ Yehudah Halevi in his epic work “Kuzari” (1140 CE). There the king of the Kazar nation discounts the Jews as not being worth talking with, due to their downtrodden status and smallness of number.
I don’t think you are asking to explain the sociological reasons the Jews are so small; those reasons abound: persecution and murder of the Jews, assimilation, etc. I understand you are asking why G-d would allow those reasons to persist if He truly wanted the Jews to be “as the stars of the sky.”
Truthfully, the Torah itself elucidates this strange fact of history. “Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did G-d desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples. Rather, because of G-d’s love for you and because He observes the oath that He swore to your forefathers did He take you out with a strong hand…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). We see that G-d Himself considers us “the fewest of all the peoples.” Why is this so? How does this fit with “like the stars”?
The commentators explain with the example of the fruit of a tree. The purpose for which the farmer grows the tree is its fruit, but the fruit is very small compared to the roots, trunk, branches, leaves and peel, all which exist for the part the farmer loves most: the succulent fruit.
The Jewish people — who are to be a “light among the nations,” the ambassadors of G-d’s teachings at Sinai where He revealed the purpose of creation — are like the fruit of the largest tree of the world. They are also compared to the heart, which, although relatively small, pumps the lifeblood throughout the entire body.
The Jews are built upon quality, not quantity. As Mark Twain noticed, “…the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race … the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of … extravagantly out of proportion to his bulk. His contributions to … literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers….” (Harper’s magazine, September 1899). The contributions of the Jews to the world, their positive impact, are “as numerous as the stars,” like a nation of hundreds of millions. The more than 1 billion Muslims don’t even begin to have a small percentage of the Nobel prizes won by those few, measly Jews!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,