The fast-approaching holy day of Shavuot, once strictly a Temple-oriented agricultural observance, was turned by a more urbanized rabbinic Judaism into the “season of the giving of our Torah.”
To recall that event, the Torah portion for the first day of Shavuot is the section that describes God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites encamped around it.
Part of that Torah reading says, “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). This verse is the root of the Chosen People idea.
Modernity put this idea to the test. Many Jews found themselves — and continue to find themselves — uncomfortable with the thought that the Jews are the Chosen People. This is especially true in an age in which the equality of all peoples is the regnant way of thinking, at least in Western countries.
Further, the claim to be chosen smacks of being a claim to racial superiority — a surefire way to arouse the ire of those who feel that they are being viewed as racially inferior. The painful truth is that for many Jews of a certain time and place, this sentiment was not uncommon. For example, the originally neutral term goy or goyim, meaning just “nation” or “nations,” became almost universally a pejorative in Jewish linguistic usage. It connoted lack of intelligence, cultural inferiority, boorishness, and a host of negative behaviors, many of which were considered intrinsically characteristic to non-Jewish peoples.
We might attempt to excuse this by citing the victimization of Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors in most countries of “the Exile,” with its concomitant normal human reaction toward the victimizers. After all, Judaism does not teach “Love thine enemy,” a precept not rigorously followed even by the nations who claim to have accepted the words of the man who said it.
Nevertheless, given the high ethical bar that Judaism sets for its adherents, we might have hoped that the sense of being chosen would have led to more high-minded thinking and action, even in the face of persecution. Our tradition has many statements that direct us to that high-mindedness. For example, the Mishna queries and responds, “Why was the first human created alone? So that no person could say ‘My father is greater than yours.’” The Talmud declares, “Just as we must give economic support to the poor of Israel, so must we give such support to the poor of the non-Jews. Just as we visit our sick, aid in burying our dead, and comfort our mourners, so must we visit the sick of the non-Jews, help them bury their dead, and comfort them when they mourn.”
The shift in attitude toward Jews that gave them citizenship in Central Europe, and then further east, promoted a definition — or better a return to the rabbinic definition of chosenness — as noblesse oblige, a higher level of religious and moral obligations to be borne by the Jewish people. According to this definition of chosenness, all peoples were created in the image of God, which made them invaluable. However, God chose us to carry more responsibility and greater allegiance to his dictates, in order to help make all societies better. We would thereby fulfill Isaiah’s charge to be “a light unto the nations.”
This being said, should we still consider ourselves the Chosen People?
Sure, as long as we keep in mind the Torah verses that created the concept: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Indeed, all the earth is God’s and all peoples are God’s children. It is only obedience to the moral tenets of Judaism and to the observance of mitzvot, which exist to purify and sensitize our souls, that makes Jews a “treasured possession” and a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We forfeit that status when we turn chosenness into a racist claim that “my father is better than yours” and thereby fail to keep God’s covenant.
May we take the opportunity presented to us on this and on every Shavuot, “the season of the giving of our Torah,” to dedicate ourselves to living exemplary lives of ethical responsibility and moral courage. And may we give ourselves the gift of living mindfully in the present through the observance of the spiritual practices of Judaism that open us to a deeper appreciation of our inner selves, the world around us, and the divinity that lives within us and beyond us. Then we will truly be the kingdom of priests and holy nation we were chosen to be.