Parashat Va'et'hanan

The Smallest of Peoples

On the brink of entering the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people that being fewer in numbers is no reason to shirk responsibilities.

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"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..." (Deuteronomy 7:7).

The Israelites stand poised to enter the Promised Land. Moses, who has been barred from entering with his people, stands before them, reminding them of their promises to God and of their responsibilities in their new land. At the close of the parashah, he makes reference to the size of the group. He reminds them that although they are small and seemingly powerless, they were chosen by God nonetheless. He is reminding them that feeling small is no excuse for abandoning their responsibilities to God and to each other.

Feelings of Inadequacy

We, the descendants of this small people, stand poised to make the world a better place. But as we consider the enormity of the world’s problems, we often get discouraged and lose hope that we could ever truly make a difference. As individuals and even as a group, we seem inadequate. What could we ever do that could possibly make a dent in the problems of world hunger, poverty, and injustice? We feel as the Israelite scouts must have felt when they first saw the Anakites of Canaan: like grasshoppers in the presence of giants, unable to confront the challenges that face us (Numbers 13).

We can take hope from studying some of the trends in modern development work. Many grassroots organizations in the developing world run programs that, though small in scale, have a positive influence on the health and quality of life of the people in their communities. In contrast, some of the larger, wealthier aid organizations haven’t had the successes that they had hoped for.

A Modern Paradigm

In his book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, economist William Easterly argues that large international aid organizations have failed in getting aid money to the people who need it most. Easterly considers organizations such as the World Bank, his former employer, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

He cites many examples of programs that, because of poor planning or poor implementation, have done little to nothing to alleviate the problems they were intended to solve. Easterly cites the statistic that the World Bank has lent $1.5 billion in aid to the Congo since 2001. However, the average Congolese person still lives on the equivalent of 29 cents per day.

In contrast, some smaller organizations have had success in fighting the biggest problems. The not-for-profit organization Population Services International found a way to provide insecticide-treated bed nets to people in Malawi. With just a small amount of financial investment, they managed to increase the percentage of children sleeping under nets by almost seven-fold. The bed nets help prevent people from getting bitten by malarial mosquitoes while they sleep, thus helping decrease the rates of malaria, a major killer in Africa.

Far from being a disadvantage, a small size can sometimes be an asset in international development work. Small local organizations often have more connections to the community and more grassroots knowledge of the problems they are trying to solve. A World Health Organization officer living in Geneva cannot possibly have the same kind of day-to-day knowledge of the health needs of people in Burma as a Burmese community leader. Smaller organizations also can avoid some of the bureaucracy that plagues larger organizations.

A quick glance at the World Bank’s website reveals a complex organizational structure with no less than 38 major units, with dozens of other internal and external stakeholders. A compact organization can focus its attention and resources on achieving concrete results. Large international aid organizations do have money and power that small homegrown groups are not easily able to access. However, their size and stature sometimes hinders their ability to make progress.

The successes of small organizations can encourage us if ever we become overwhelmed by the problems of the world. While we might at times feel powerless, our challenge is to take the resources we do have and use them in the best way possible. By thinking creatively, we can turn our deficiencies into assets. As Moses reminds the Israelites, God built a relationship with the Jewish people despite their small size and lack of resources. We too could use the reminder that size doesn’t matter. Irrespective of our background or the size of the challenges we face, we all have the power and the responsibility to help build the Promised Land.

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Pamela Katz is the Education Associate at American Jewish World Service. She has a B.A. in history from Yale University. She has spent time in Japan, India, and Central America, and is an alumna of an AJWS Alternative Break to El Salvador.