Both the end of Parashat Vaetchanan and the beginning of Parashat Ekev focus on the small size of Israel, as compared to the rival nations of Canaan.
In Parashat Vaetchanan we read:
“When the LORD your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you” (Devarim 7:1)
“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the LORD set His heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples” (Devarim 7:7)
And in Parashat Ekev:
“Should you say to yourselves, ‘These nations are more numerous than we; how can we dispossess them?’ (Devarim 7:17)
Why are these verses focused on Israel being small?
I think the answer can be found if we note another theme in this section: the need to follow the commandments. While this is a pervasive theme throughout the book of Devarim, it is woven into these particular verses in a way that implies a connection between them.
For example, after mentioning how small Israel is, and describing God’s commitment to us, Parashat Vaetchanan ends with this verse:
“Therefore, observe faithfully the Instruction—the laws and the rules—with which I charge you today. “ (Devarim 7:11)
What are these laws? Are they all of the commandments in the Torah, or are they referring to specific laws and instructions?
An answer could potentially be found a few verses earlier. The Torah says that:
“In the future, your child may ask you, ‘What are the rituals, rules and laws that God our Lord has commanded you?’” (Devarim 6:20)
However, in the following verses there is no answer to “what” the laws are, but rather the Torah again describes God’s commitment to us: how He took us out of Egypt, will give us the land, and therefore we should follow His laws. In light of this, many translators and commentaries say the question should be understood as, “What is the purpose of these laws”?
But even if we now understand the purpose of the laws, the nature of these laws is still unclear, and we are still curious about the connection of all this to the size of Israel. To answer these questions, I think we need to go much further back in the Torah.
To start, let’s look at the opening verse of Parashat Ekev:
“And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the LORD your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers:” (Devarim 7:12)
This verse has many linguistic parallels with a verse in Genesis, which concludes God’s promise to Yitzchak:
“inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings” (Bereshit 26:5)
Both verses mention following God’s laws, use similar language and notably they both begin with the word “ekev” (because). But there is a significant difference between the two passages. While as we’ve seen, chapter 7 in Devarim focuses on how small Israel is, the preceding verses in Bereshit emphasize how large we will become:
God says to Yitzchak: “I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands.” (Bereshit 26:4)
With this comparison, we can begin to tie up all these unanswered questions.
God promised to all the Avot that their descendants would become a huge nation. But the nation that was about to enter the land in Moshe’s time had not yet achieved that size, and they were likely concerned about it. So Moshe consoled them by noting that God didn’t choose them for their size, and if God defeated the massive empire of Egypt, He could defeat the nations of Canaan as well.
But the people may have still desired to be a large nation. And here Moshe warns them against taking the forbidden path to such growth:
“You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.” (Devarim 7:3)
The people may have been tempted to intermarry with the Canaanites to create a political union, as was suggested was suggested in the story of Shechem:
“Only then will we give you our daughters and take your daughters for ourselves. We will be able to live together with you and [both of us] will become a single nation.” (Bereshit 34:16)
This was an unacceptable path. God would reward the people, “He will favor you and bless you and multiply you” (Devarim 7:13), but only if they maintained their own distinct identity, “of all the peoples on earth the LORD your God chose you to be His treasured people” (Devarim 7:6)
This is the “instruction” that is repeated in the sections in Devarim. The people shouldn’t follow the typical political path of assimilating with the local inhabitants of the land. They must follow God’s laws and remain unique, and if they do so, God will ensure that the promises to the Avot will be fulfilled.