16 Av 5772 / August 3-5, 2012
In this week’s portion, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites, and shares quite a bit of content-heavy material. He recaps the 10 commandments (changing a couple of words in the process – yikes!), he shares the “Shema” and “V’ahavta,” which Jews traditionally say in their daily prayers, and he shares that when our children ask us why we follow the various laws, that we’re to respond that we were slaves in Egypt, and with Divine intervention, we were able to go free to the Promised Land (Sound familiar? This passage is traditionally read at the Passover Seder!).
Moses also emphasizes that the Israelites are the Chosen People:
“You are a people consecrated to God. God chose you from the peoples of the world to be treasured. You were not chosen because you are the most numerous of peoples - indeed, you are the smallest of peoples. But because God kept a promise to your ancestors, you were freed from Pharaoh and Egypt.”
(Deuteronomy 7:6-8) (paraphrased)
Most of the world’s major religions believe that their adherents are the Chosen People. If they didn’t believe such, then they’d have a really hard time recruiting members, as they would be admitting that they possessed no special covenant with God, and that others had a more direct connection. Not an easy sell!
The idea of being the “Chosen People” is one that Jews have embraced for millennia. In the Friday night kiddush (the blessing over the wine), we say “ki vanu bacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim” – “because you chose us and made us holy from amongst all of the nations.” As a more contemporary example of the embrace of the designation, the advertising slogan for He’Brew beer is “The Chosen Beer.”
However, as many Jews have started to embrace a Western universalistic worldview, and as many Jews question and wrestle with believing in any sort of interactive God who would be in a position to “choose” one nation for special designation, this concept of “Chosenness” is one that makes many contemporary Jews uncomfortable. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable.
How do we deal with such discomfort?
First, we need to be honest about it. We need to be comfortable saying that we struggle with parts of our tradition. Certain pieces, as initially conceived, may not speak to our currently held beliefs. And that’s okay!
Also, we should commit to not simply rejecting our tradition because pieces of it don’t speak to us in their current form. Rather, we should strive to find meaning, adopting contemporary interpretations as necessary. Even if we struggle with the concept of Chosenness, we can ask the following:
“Hypothetically, if we were Chosen, how would we utilize that status in order to set an example for others as to what it means to lead meaningful, compassionate, love-filled lives?”
In other words, whether we believe we’re Chosen or not, we should strive to be held in such esteem that people of the world look at us and assume we must be Chosen as a result of the way we live our lives and the good deeds we do.
This Shabbat, reflect on what Chosenness means to you.
Think about, and then try to answer the hypothetical shared above.
And then, commit to living your life in that way.