Explaining population size: Jews versus Muslims

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 would have many children, and God would make of him a great nation. Today, there are 12 million Jews (from Isaac) and more than 1 billion Muslims from Ishmael. 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?
Joel B.
Dear Joel,
I don’t think you are asking me to explain the sociological reasons the Jewish nation is so small in numbers; those reasons include persecution, murder of the Jews, assimilation and so on. Rather, I assume you are asking why God would allow those factors to persist if He truly wanted the Jews to be as abundant “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 God desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples. Rather, because of God’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 God, Himself, considers us “the fewest of all the peoples.” How does this fit with “like the stars”?
The commentators explain with an example of fruit from a tree. The farmer grows a tree for its fruit, but the fruit is very minuscule in comparison to the roots, trunk, branches, leaves and peel. All of this exists for what the farmer loves most: the succulent fruit. Although the tree is vastly greater than the fruit it produces, in the mind of the farmer, it’s about the fruit.
The Jewish people are charged to be a “light unto the nations.” This, in short, means that we are to be the ambassadors of God’s teachings at Mount Sinai, where He revealed the purpose of creation. In that way we, the Jewish people, are like the fruit, while the other nations are like the larger tree. In other words, the Jews are built upon quality, not quantity.
Mark Twain put it so well: “…the Jews constitute but 1 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).
To prophetically receive the tremendous spiritual energy carried by the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish nation was endowed with an expanded soul, which could contain all that energy. Hence, that expanded soul excels in other areas of study as well.
The contributions of the Jews to the world, their positive impact is “as numerous as the stars,” similar to a nation of hundreds of millions. Despite such small numbers, some 30 percent of Nobel Prizes have been won by Jews. In contrast, the Muslim nation, with over a billion adherents, holds nary a Nobel Prize in anything but “peace”!
Until, perhaps, the future messianic times, when the count will be literal, the meaning of the Jews’ numbering like the stars takes on a different meaning. Consider a star; it looks like a minuscule point of light at night, but we know that as we approach the star, it is a massive light and heat source almost beyond comprehension. So, too, with the Jewish people. As much light as we are able to radiate unto the nations, is simply a tiny point of light compared to how we will shine when the “cover comes off” and our full illumination will be felt, beyond our comprehension today.

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