“Just Great” Parashat Va’etchanan 5777

Each summer, during the first week of Av, my wife and I spend a day or two in Alon Shevut attending Yemei Tanach (“Tanach Days”), a learning conference in which two or so thousand people come to learn Tanach from some of the best teachers in the world. The shiur that we found most interesting this year was given by Rabbi Avi Gisser, the Rav of Ofra. The title of Rav Gisser’s shiur was “Hashem Calculated the End (ketz)”, referring to a line in the Pesach Haggadah that says “Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel, blessed be He! For Hashem calculated the end [of the bondage] in order to do as He told our father Avraham at the Covenant of the Parts, as it is said [Bereishit 15:13]: ‘Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and make them suffer for four hundred years.’” Rav Gisser was trying to understand precisely how Hashem calculated the end of the Egyptian exile. We know that the exile ended early, lasting for only two hundred and ten years. What made Hashem pull the trigger so much earlier than He planned?

Here is a precis of Rav Gisser’s shiur: It begins with the first promise that Hashem made Avraham [Bereishit 12:2]: “I will make you into a great nation”. As his grandson, Yaakov, prepares for the trip to Egypt, for all intents and purposes to begin the long-predicted exile, Hashem tells him [Bereishit 46:3]: “Do not fear going to Egypt because there I will make you into a great nation”. There, in Egypt, Hashem will fulfil the promise that He made to Avraham years earlier. There Am Yisrael do indeed become great: They begin to multiply at an astronomical rate. The Torah tells us [Shemot 1:7] “The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them”. According to the Midrash, the average family had six children[1]. The Egyptians begin to become concerned: Am Yisrael are turning into a potential fifth column. They endeavour to reduce the Jewish birth rate. First they enslave the Jews, hoping that a physically broken person will not have time or energy to raise a family. This plan is unsuccessful [Shemot 1:12]: “But as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they spread”. Rashi brings the Midrash that quotes Hashem, as it were: “You said ‘lest they multiply’, but I say ‘so did they multiply’”. And so the Egyptians resort to more aggressive tactics: they kill all the male infants. Yet even this tactic is ineffective at thwarting Am Yisrael’s astronomic growth. Rabbeinu Bachye Ibn Pekuda sums it all up: the Egyptian exile was essentially a war of numbers between Am Yisrael and the Egyptians. Am Yisrael miraculously won the war because not only did we survive, we thrived. Rav Gisser concludes that when the population hit the magical number of six hundred thousand, a number that somehow remained constant during forty years in the desert, the time had come for them to leave their exile. “Hashem calculated the end” means that the end would be determined by population and not by time. Am Yisrael were released from their bondage earlier than predicted because they were more prolific than predicted. While Rav Gisser admitted that he didn’t understand why the trigger was set specifically at six hundred thousand, he did note that there is a positive commandment to make a blessing “Baruch chacham ha’razim” (Blessed is the one Whose knowledge encompasses the wisdom of the secrets[2]) whenever a person sees six-hundred thousand Jews in Israel[3].

I’d like to expand on Rav Gisser’s idea but first we need to ask a question: Does “a great nation” really mean “a big nation”? In Parashat Va’etchanan, Moshe describes the reaction of the Nations of the World if we keep Hashem’s Torah [Devarim 4:6-8]: “You shall keep [the mitzvot] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has Hashem so near to it, as He is at all times that we call upon Him? And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this entire Torah, which I set before you this day?” The word “great” in these verses has nothing to do with size. When Hashem promises Avraham that he will be a “great nation”, He does not mean that Avraham will be a “large nation”, but, rather, a “wonderful nation” – a nation that will be admired and emulated by people around the world, assuming, of course, that this nation kept the Torah.

On November 2, 2017, one hundred years will have passed since the signing of the Balfour declaration, a letter written by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, stating that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”. The Balfour Declaration was passed into international law as part of the Preamble to the League of Nations in 1922. There is a common misconception that the Balfour Declaration was “an isolated act by a single nation”. An article written by Martin Kramer[4] proves conclusively that this was not so. Kramer introduces us to a forgotten figure, Nachum Sokolow. According to Kramer, “Sokolow is the entry point into the fuller story of the Balfour Declaration.” While the Balfour Declaration was a giant step in the right direction, it would remain unfulfilled unless it was recognized by the international community, specifically France, Italy, and the US. Sokolow shuttled between world capitols to garner the necessary support. His first stop was France, where he convinced the French to write their own document that went far beyond Lord Balfour’s tepid words: “It would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality  in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.” Sokolow travelled from France to Italy, where he met with the Italian government and with Pope Benedict, somehow securing both of their blessings. Sokolow’s next target was Washington, where he recruited Louis Brandeis, a Jewish Supreme Court Justice, to do his bidding. While the US was still hostile to the Zionist cause, Brandeis somehow[5] convinced President Woodrow Wilson to bypass his Secretary of State and to send a written letter of approval to Britain. According to Kramer , without the active support of the allies the Balfour Declaration would have never been accepted as law. Proof lies in a similar pledge made by Britain to King Hussein “that [Britain] would support Arab independence within certain borders… possibly in Palestine.” This promise was never fulfilled because it remained private and unwritten. Without the support of the allies, it was destined to whither and die.

When Avraham first moves to the Land of Canaan, we hear how he took [Bereishit 12:5] “the souls that he made in Haran”. Rashi teaches that these were the people “whom [Avraham] had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Avraham would convert the men and Sarah would convert the women”. We never hear about these converts. What happened to them? I suggest that any idea, no matter how earth-shattering it may be, requires critical mass before it can develop traction. Avraham was charismatic and he had a vision, but he was just one person. His converts most likely eventually lost their interest and left.

No matter what our size, Am Yisrael will always be a great nation. We have a relationship with Hashem that is not shared by any other nation in the world. But if we want to become a great nation that can make some sort of lasting effect on this world then we must become not only a great nation, but a large nation, as well. How great we must be is not clear. Rav Gisser would suggest that it is six-hundred thousand. Could be. We’ve already hit that number and we’re making a pretty big dent. May it be Hashem’s will that we witness the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah [60:2-3]: “Hashem shall shine upon you and His glory shall appear over you. Nations shall go by your light and kings by the brilliance of your shine.”


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] Not necessarily sextuplets, as is commonly understood.

[2] Translation of the Ohr Someyach website.

[3] This was also the number of Israeli males between the ages of twenty and sixty in 1967.


[5] There sure are a lot of “somehow”s here. It almost seems miraculous…

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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