CHOSEN FOR WHAT?

For many Jews, it’s an embarrassment: inspiration for both anti-Semitism and self-questioning. I refer to Moses’ statement to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (See).

The great teacher says, “. . . the Lordyour God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (Deut. 14:2). Many Jews and non-Jews misinterpret this as raising the people Israel above other nations for no discernable reason. But Israel’s selection entails not privilege but responsibility.

The Israelites, whose misdoings condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years, were not chosen for their size—they were a small people—or their merits. Deuteronomy 7:8 relates that they were chosen “because God ‘kept the oath he made to your fathers . . .’” The Rabbis term this zevut achot, the merits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who held a special monotheistic vision. Thus a stiff-necked people was to be given a homeland. Why?

The late Israeli scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden—that of the kingdom of Heaven—of Torah and Mitzvot [commandments].”    

Israel is to be a nation of priests. This represents a goal, a status of holiness to be earned by accepting responsibility and its consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants priests rights and privileges unavailable to ordinary people, God also places them under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”

Israel must accept its special status with modesty. The prophet Amos preaches that God also watches over other nations. “True, I brought Israel up / From the land of Egypt, / But also the Philistines from Caphtor [Crete] / And the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7).

Rabbi Joel Rembaum states that God “maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval must be earned through right conduct, which all peoples can exercise.

The Canaanites sinned. Only for that reason did God cast them out of their land and give it to the Children of Israel. But the Rabbis do not denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews. They also are created in God’s image. All people, the Rabbis maintain, contain the Divine spark.

A midrash—a story trying to explain the biblical narrative—guides the Chosen People to exercise perspective. While Israel (the people, not the modern state) is to be praised for accepting the Torah, God previously offered it to all the other nations. Moreover, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) relates Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama’s view that God held the mountain (Horeb/Sinai) over the Israelites’ heads and said, “’If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial.” The Israelites did not make a moral choice. They had no choice.

Treasured on one hand, the Chosen People are tasked to set an example for their siblings. Being the “oldest spiritual child” represents a daunting challenge.

This post was adapted from a discussion in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, available from me or at Amazon.

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