Towards the end of Parshat V’Etchanan, Moshe says (7:7):
“Not because you are the most numerous nation did Hashem choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations.”
Commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand the meaning of this pasuk, and how it reconciles with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand and the stars.
Rabbeinu Bechaye reinterprets this pasuk to mean that although Bnai Yisrael is numerous, even had they not been, Hashem would have chosen them as His People.
Rashbam explained that the Jews were great in number, but few compared to the combined populations of all seven nations that inhabited Canaan at the time.
Rashi explains that “me’at” in this pasuk does not refer to a number but refers to the meritorious attitude of humility. The greatness of the Jewish People and its leaders is their incredible demonstrations of humility, even when they had every reason in the world to act otherwise. (Proofs: Avraham – who says Anochi Afar V’Efer, and Moshe: the greatest spiritual leader ever, and yet the most humble as well.)
There are other commentators, such as Seforno, who take this pasuk at face value. In fact the Jewish People would not be great in size. The Divine blessing must be reinterpreted to refer to a quality that the descendants of Avraham possess, and not an impressive quantity. According to Seforno, the end of the verse is not merely an elaboration of what was expressed at the beginning of the verse (ie, Bnai Yisrael is not a large nation Ki, but rather a small nation). Instead Seforno understands the word Ki here to mean “because of, as a result of”… In other words, the reason why Hashem desired us and chose us is, “Ki Atem Ha’meat mikol Ha’Amim”: because of our status as a small nation, not in spite of it.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained that Hashem’s choice of a nation few in number is God’s way of teaching the lesson that one need not be numerous in order to be great. Nations are not judged by their size but by their contributions to civilization. Our focus should not be on numbers but the power and potential impact that each individual possesses to transform the world for the better.
I believe that there is another lesson to be learned from our dual status as chosen and few in number: Truth and righteousness are not determined by a majority. It is determined by objective morals and values informed by the Torah.
Rabbi Moshe Amiel notes that in kosher laws we have a concept of Bitul B’rov- that if a small amount of non-kosher food falls into a much larger pot of kosher food- the non-kosher may be nullified, and we say majority rules. So, why do we not assume that the majority of public opinion, the majority world religion, the majority ethos of morality should rule, even when it contradicts Judaism? Rav Amiel answered that in Halacha we also have the concept of a davar hamaamid. If an ingredient maintains a presence, even if it comprises only a minute amount, it cannot be nullified and the entire dish remains impacted by that ingredient. Torah, objective morality, the Jewish perspective, are all examples of devaraim hamaamadim: principles that must continue to influence and impact the broader world, no matter how much of a minority the Jewish People might be.