The first word of this week’s Parasha is the word “Va’etchanan”, I entreated.
Moses is pleading with God; initially to be allowed to enter the Promised Land but going on to plead with the people to listen. It contains not just the repetition of the Ten Commandments but also the Shema. These words were originally part of a basic prayer service as attested in the Nash Papyrus, a document possibly as old as the 2nd century BCE. Towards the end of the reading are the words
כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּֽים
For you are the least of all the peoples.
It is not necessary to be a nation of many people but to be a great nation implies something else. King Louis XIV asked how the existence of God could be proved. The philosopher Blaise Pascal replied “your Majesty, The Jews”.
We never sought to convert the rest of the world. Numbers are not important. We were ambivalent about creating images. The listing of forbidden images in the Parasha was used by Rabbi Eliakim ben Joel of Mainz in the late 12th or early 13th century. He condemned the installation of stained-glass windows with images of dragons and lions in the synagogue of Cologne as a transgression of the biblical Commandment. This ruling is still used today to inform synagogue design.
Perhaps what makes the least of the peoples so important throughout the ages can be found in the words in Va’etchanan: Buried in the Parasha are the words –
You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you and you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord