In this week’s parsha, Jacob flees from his brother Esau’s wrath. On his way, he falls asleep and has an unusual dream in which he sees a ladder situated on the ground reaching to the heavens. His see angels going up and down the ladder, G-d then blesses him:
“Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”
The simple understanding is that this was a blessing that we will be as numerous as the dust of the earth.
The question has been raised, where do we see this great proliferation of the Jewish people throughout history? On the contrary, we seem to be the least numerous of nations. Persecution and assimilation have always diminished our numbers. Even today, after 80 years, we haven’t replenished our losses from the Holocaust.
Overcoming Our Enemies
Maimonides (in his classic Epistle to Yemen) seems to have anticipated this question and explains that just as people tread upon the earth today, ultimately the earth will bury us all. So too enemy nations may tread upon us but we will ultimately bury them.
There is a similar blessing in an earlier verse: G-d promised Abraham after the Akeidah that his progeny would be like the “sand on the seashore.”
The classic commentary, known as the Meharasha, explains that the comparison to the sand on the seashore was meant to suggest that, just as the sea is stopped by the sand and doesn’t expand beyond, so too the nations of the world (who are compared to the sea) will not be able to overwhelm us and destroy us; we are like the sand on the seashore which prevents the sea from spreading.
In other words, the promise that the Jewish people will be like the dust of the earth or the sand of the seashore is meant to express our immortality; we will overcome all our enemies.
The same theme, of how we will prevail, is also hinted in Jacob’s dream of the ladder where the angels were going up and down.
The Midrash Tanchuma, cited by the Baal Haturim, states that the words “olim v’yordim-going up and down” have the same gematria-numerical value as the four empires that subjugated the Jewish people: Babylonia, Media (Persia), Greece, and Rome.
The suggestion here is that while these nations, represented by their guardian angels, will initially be on the ascendancy over the Jewish people (climbing up the ladder), they will eventually decline (going down the ladder) and we will triumph over them.
Reconciling with the Simple Meaning
A question remains when we consider the literal meaning of the blessings that we will proliferate as the dust of the earth, or that we will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. How can we reconcile these blessings with the reality that we are such a small nation numerically?
The following answer is based on a talk by the Rebbe, in which he teaches that there are two approaches to counting a nation. And, based on that, we will be able to see that no nation is as numerous as the Jewish people.
Two Levels of Unity
When we count groups of people to determine the total number of members of a particular group or nation, our count stops with the current generation. We cannot count all Americans, for example, who have ever lived, numbering those who are alive today along with those of previous generations. Even though they are or were all Americans, there is nothing that truly connects the Americans of today with those of the past.
The Jewish people are different. We have an intrinsic connection to all our forebears. Because of our connection to G-d through the Mitzvos that we observe we are connected to Jews from all preceding generations.
In simple terms this means that the Jewish census taken today includes Jews from all generations in the past and perhaps even in the future because we are inextricably bound to one another. The Jewish people of all generations constitute one organic body.
Moreover, even with respect to contemporaneous members of society, the Jewish people enjoy a most profound connection to their coreligionists. The glue that binds one member of a political nation-state to its other members is superficial and based on some peripheral co-identification; the glue that binds one Jew to another is deeply rooted and even intrinsic on two levels:
First, at their core, the Jewish people are connected to each other by virtue of their common soul. The soul is the Divine energy that was given to us to fulfill our unique mission. Every Jewish soul is therefore inherently connected to every other Jewish soul.
Second, even on the surface, we are connected by every Mitzvah that we perform. A Mitzvah, which means a “bond,” connects us to G-d and through Him to each other. Furthermore, a Mitzvah helps us uncover the inner unity that we possess which might otherwise be obscured by our Animal Soul and the needs of our physical bodies.
For example, when a Jewish woman lights her Shabbos candles just before sunset each Friday, the light that she generates connects to the light of every other Jewish woman that is alive today who lights the Shabbos candles, as well as to every woman of the past who lit those candles. It also helps a Jewish woman to express her inner spirituality and light, which might have otherwise remained dormant.
Based on this analysis, it emerges that we are indeed the most numerous of nations because we are all connected and part of one organic whole.
By contrast, the other nations’ connections to each other are tenuous and superficial. Since every individual stands alone, their numbers do not truly add up. If a nation has a hundred million people, they are a hundred million different entities. Today the Jewish people number around 15 million. But when combined with the Jews of the past, we number in the hundreds of millions!
This premise explains why we will prevail over our enemies as the “sand on the seashore” that blocks the waves of the sea and as the “dust of the earth” that will bury them. We come with a different kind of strength. Not only do we have a qualitative edge over the evil nations who seek to destroy us because of our connection to G-d, we also possess a quantitative edge over them.
This explains why there is such an emphasis placed on observance of Mitzvos to combat the enemy. Not only do Mitzvos grant us Divine energy which empowers us, but they also cement our relationship with each other and reveal our inner unity.
This power of unity on both levels, inner and outer, that we possess through our mitzvah observance is the most formidable force that will vanquish the enemy.