The seventh aliya of Parshat Vaetchanan, the beginning of Chapter 7 in Devarim, is a reminder by Moshe of Hashem’s promise to Bnai Yisrael to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, and the responsibilities and obligations that they will have upon entry and possession of the Land. In this context Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael of their special relationship with Hashem 7:6:
“For you are a holy people to Hashem; He has chosen you to be for Him a treasured nation above all the peoples on the face of the Earth.”
Moshe continues in 7:7:
לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק ה בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּֽים
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. These commentators were troubled by how this pasuk jibes with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham but then subsequently repeated to others, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand or 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 combine 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 their 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 ever 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.