In the classic Broadway musical “Fiddler On the Roof” the main character Tevye the dairyman ironically quips while entreating G-d, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” In his frustration, Tevye echoes 4000 years of Jewish experience. At first blush it would appear being G-d’s Chosen People is not always all it is cracked up to be. Tevye’s little shtetl is continuously assailed by political violence, poverty and the unrelenting demands of modernity. But in the midst of all this perhaps the greatest challenge to the village of Anatevka will be that of maintaining their traditions in a world that demands sameness and conformity.
This week’s parasha contains the dramatic summit of the Exodus story, Israel encounters the Master of the World at the base of Mt. Sinai. Here the Jewish people and G-d exchange pledges of love and loyalty, and embrace the Ten Commandments, the first clear articulation of mutually agreed upon covenant. But prior to this G-d speaks to Moses and clearly articulates the special bond He plans with Israel; “and now if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of, all peoples, for mine is the entire world.” (Ex. 19:5) this statement though, appears to contain an internal conflict, the conflict of a “chosen people”.
How can the G-d of the entire universe choose just one people. If G-d is truly omniscient, isn’t the restriction of His choice to only one people group bad form. Shouldn’t G-d love everybody equally? Isn’t the concept of “chosenness” just a bit xenophobic? Many Jews today would argue that such a claim denigrates the rest of humanity.
But isn’t that claim central to the thesis of all of Torah, and isn’t it at the core of the entire bible? This statement of the specialness of Israel and all subsequent statements of Jewish chosenness present the context for the Ten Commandments and all of the commandments that are to follow. In fact, uprooting this concept dilutes the biblical tradition and threatens to eradicate the importance of Scriptures heroic figures.
How then can we square this circle, G-d as the loving Divinity of all humanity and the uniqueness and specialness of the Jewish people? To do so we must first come to terms with the assertion that G-d loves and cares about all humanity. Every person and people group is precious to the Creator who animates the human soul. (Breishit 2:7) G-d’s ongoing care for every “tribe and tongue” is a testament to His ability to seriously multi-task. But if everyone is special doesn’t it detract from my own concept of personal and group exceptionalism? This does not have to be the case. G-d creates the world from the beginning in a process of havdil (distinction) giving every element of creation, both environment and inhabitants a unique and special purpose. G-d creates and maintains the world by creating an economy of mutual blessing. We bless G-d by blessing one another and drawing energy from the others distinct gifts and experience. To try to create others in our image does violence to this divine system of blessing.
So, what about Jewish chosenness? To some extent Jewish chosenness is a metaphorical sentence fragment. In the same way, it is an incomplete and misleading statement to say I am the chief rabbi without context (I am the chief rabbi where I am also the only rabbi), so it is incomplete and prideful to state that the Jewish people are chosen of G-d without appropriate context. What completes the concept of Jewish chosenness is the understanding that the Jewish people were chosen to embody the value and standards of Torah and to display these values to a world which might be living apart from these values. By living a life center on G-d’s mitzvot we choose to be chosen. We allow the covenant (brit) to live by how we choose to live! As is the case of any love relationship we can enhance or demean that relationship. The power is in our hands to live G-d’s choice of us as much as it is His.
The Holy Ones purpose for Israel is stated in the following sentence at Sinai after He announces His unique love for Israel. “You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests (representatives) and a holy nation.” (Shemot 19:6) Israel is told if it is obedient to the commands and ordinances of Torah, they will image God as kings and priests, sovereigns and servants. Worship will be their ritual performance of the primordial intention for triangulated service between God, humanity, and creation. In this respect Israel stands as the living link between God and the rest of humanity, repairing the cosmic breach that occurred with human disobedience. Biblical scholar Jon Levenson has referred to Israel’s dual role as “an aristocracy of humility.”
As Israel stood at the foot of Sinai and all the people responded “kol asher diber adonai naaseh vayashev, all that the LORD has said we will do,” they accepted not only the privileges of bearing the name of the King of all of the Earth, but also the covenantal responsibilities associated with those privileges. Likewise as we stand before the Aron Kodesh each week it is as though we stand in continuity before Sinai and receive Torah as though for the first time. As we remove the Torah from the ark it is as though we are again saying “all that the LORD has commanded we will do.”
With this acceptance, we are compelled to live lives that will model God’s image in the world. It is our responsibility together with all of Israel to honor and exalt God by affecting his dignity. Sovereignty in God’s economy is not that which is grasped but rather that which is freely given. Though an odd dichotomy by normal reckoning, the power of God is perfected in our weakness. It is through service that we attain the mark of divinely gifted aristocracy. In this respect we are called follow the model of Israel’s greatest son. Yeshua abandoned the privileges of deity and did not claim or exploit his status (Phil.2: 6-8). His role is not passive; rather he actively undertakes the role of a servant. So for Yeshua the incarnation in and of itself is a position of marginality. We intuit that far more is lost when he enters the created order than we are capable of comprehending, or that the biblical authors are able to adequately convey. But we also understand intuitively that with this “chosenness” there is more to gain than the accepted politics of power can offer. It is through his sacrifice and servant hood that Yeshua is elevated to the right hand of God.
So this is true of Israel as well. We learn from both the Torah and the living Torah that we are given sovereignty to care for the created order. To care for the widow and the orphan, to feed the poor and the hungry, to provide hospitality for the stranger, to protect those who have no position or power, to care for all life forms on the planet and the environment that supports all of us. We do not have the option to claim status or to be self-protective, rather we must look out for all on whom the sun rises and sets.
As we immerse ourselves in Torah and the “living Torah” Yeshua, we renew our unique relationship with G-d. By doing so we justify the claim that we are not G-d’s only love, but His first.