by Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein
“I will surely bless you, and I will make your descendants numerous like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore.”
This is the famous blessing Hashem gives to Avraham (Bereishit 22:17).
There’s an obvious question here. According to current estimates, there are around 7.7 billion people in the world, of whom approximately only 14.6 million are Jews – children of Avraham. We make up roughly only 0.2% of the world’s population. How, then, do we understand this blessing of being great in number – numerous like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore – when clearly, we are not, and never have been? And even G-d Himself, later in the Torah, tells us that He did not choose the Jewish people “because you are the most numerous of the nations… since you are [indeed] the fewest."
Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, a 19th-century German commentator, finds a clue in an unusual rendering of a very similar blessing found earlier in Sefer Bereishit. The verse says: “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted” (Bereishit 13:16).
He explains that the Hebrew word used here for “to count” – limnot – actually means “to ascribe importance to.” G-d blesses Avraham’s descendants not that they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, but rather that they will be important to the world in the same way that the earth is important. He blesses them that their contribution to the world should be significant and tangible.
Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Berlin, who headed the great Yeshiva of Volozhin, employs a similar approach. He explains that, like the stars, Avraham’s descendants will have a special power to illuminate the world, their contribution radiating across history and pointing the way forward for human progress.
"Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Crusades, Cossacks, Communists, Nazis – yet we remain steadfastly in place, holding the line, not washed away."
The Kli Yakar takes a different approach. He says the blessing that we will be like “the sand of the seashore” is a reference not to the future impact of the Jewish people, but to our endurance as a nation.
The sand on the seashore is constantly subjected to the waves that come crashing down on it, threatening to wash it away – and yet, while its grains shift, the seashore remains, unmoved, unmovable. The analogy is clear. Throughout history, the Jewish people have faced enemy after enemy – Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Crusades, Cossacks, Communists, Nazis – yet we remain steadfastly in place, holding the line, not washed away.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) discusses how Jewish history has always defied the laws of nature, how our very origins are enveloped in miracles. Take the birth of Yitzchak. Avraham was 100 years old, Sarah was 90, and they had an only son. What were the chances of this little family becoming a great nation? Yet, from these rickety beginnings, the Jewish people emerged, thereby expressing so clearly the Divine blessing and plan for our nation. Yitzchak’s name comes from the Hebrew word for ‘laughter,’ which reflects how, through G-d’s eternal blessings given to Avraham and his descendants, Jewish destiny has laughed at the laws of history and transcended the usual trajectory of nations and defied the odds, time and again.
In 2011, I attended the Conference of European Rabbis in Warsaw, the largest gathering of rabbis in Poland since World War II. It stirred something deep within me. To witness such a huge gathering of Jewish leaders from all over Europe in a city that had literally caged its Jewish population and then shipped them off to death was to understand the miracle of Jewish endurance. It was a loud declaration that we Jews, thanks to Divine providence, are still here.
The miraculous enduring vibrancy of the Jewish people is a key theme of this year’s Shabbat Project, which will see Jews of all backgrounds uniting in more than 1,600 cities and 105 countries around the world to keep and celebrate Shabbat.
The call to sign up and jump together is a call to define our Jewish identity by inspiration rather than force of circumstance, uniting in joy and celebration around our Divine values, rather than pain and persecution. It is a call to embrace Shabbat, which is the vibrant source of our connection to G-d, family, community and even to ourselves. It is a call to unify as Jews, as brothers and sisters who love each other, and who are bonded together by our shared Divine destiny.
Let’s jump together, shake the dust of the earth and live the miracle of our ongoing vitality. Let’s shine our light to the world.
This article was originally published on The Shabbat Project website. Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein is the current Chief Rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project. He has launched and led a number of revolutionary initiatives that have changed the landscape of both his own community and world Jewry. A certified dayan, Rabbi Goldstein has published several books, including Sefer Mishpat Tzedek, Defending the Human Spirit and The Legacy. The Chief Rabbi has a PhD in human rights and constitutional law, and is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post. Learn more about Rabbi Goldstein here.