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Fundamental Faith

by Miriam Kosman

 

 

Dear Miriam,

 

The idea of the Chosen People really bothers me.  It sounds incredibly racist to think we are better than other people.  After all the suffering Jews have undergone from the concept of a superior race, it seems ridiculous that we ourselves believe we are better than other people.  Also, are we really supposed to believe that G-d plays favorites?  That our blood is redder?  That He loves us more?  The whole idea sounds self-serving and negates the universalism upon which modern society is built. 

 

An Uncomfortable Universalist

 

 

 

 

Thank you for your question.  The way you worded it reminds me of something I experienced years ago.  I used to bring one of my babies to a sitter who made a big fuss about my child.  She would tell me how cute the baby was and how much she loved her, and then she would whisper to me how she was her favorite of all the children she watched and how she always saved my baby the best toys. 

 

I’m sure she thought I would be complimented by her attention, but the truth is, at the first opportunity, I took my child out of her care.  More than being uncomfortable with the flattery, I didn’t feel secure with a caretaker who played favorites.  She was responsible for four other children, besides for (albeit adorable) little one, and I would have felt much better if she had acted with the same warmth toward all the children in her care.

 

          I can see where the idea of the Chosen People could awaken similar associations.  How could G-d play favorites?  On a certain level, the idea undermines our faith in Him as an unbiased, loving Father.

 

          Understood at its depth, though, the concept of the Chosen People is not only not racist, but is an indication of G-d’s love of and faith in humanity. 

 

 

United We Stand, Separate We Fall

 

 

          First of all, notice that the idea of the Chosen People was definitely Plan B.[1]  In the Garden of Eden there were only two people – Adam and Chavah.  Were they Jewish?  No, they were humans created in the image of G-d.  They were charged with the mission of humanity; to bring G-d’s presence into this physical world, to search for G-d in the darkness and find Him, to live in this physical world with spiritual awareness.  They had a job to do, and they ultimately failed. 

 

          The next major attempt at achieving this mission was with Noach.  Noach and his family were the only ones of their generation who embodied the original human ideal.  The world started again with them.  They were chosen, but they weren’t Jewish.  The hope was that from these roots, mankind would unite once more to reach their goal.

 

          At the Tower of Babel, humanity fell again.  The generation of the Tower of Babel wanted to touch the heaven.  But their goal was not connecting to the Infinite.  Instead of connecting to G-d, they worshiped humanity’s almost limitless abilities to harness the physical world for its own purposes.  They yearned to reach total independence. 

 

          The Maharal2 explains that this is why their tower had to be built in a valley rather than on a mountain – though a mountain would have made their tower closer to the sky.  A tower that was about the celebration of human prowess needed to be manmade from the ground up.

 

Not Anti-G-d, Just Pro-Human

 

 

          Like our generation today, the generation of the Tower of Babel was intoxicated by the illusion of control over nature.  Their very power led to a terrible, aching fear of being dependent on something that was outside of their control.  Connecting to the Infinite means realizing that there are forces beyond our puny and minuscule selves.  That feeling can be unbearable to those unwilling to take the leap into a relationship.  Their solution was to negate that dependency.  They would reach the sky all by themselves.  They were the forbearers of all of us, who desperately try to escape the feelings of neediness and vulnerability that a lack of control produces. 

 

          We are like little ants on the side of a slippery mountain, desperately trying to get a fingerhold, and each time we do manage to hold on, we have the euphoric feeling that this time, we made it.  Now, we are really in control.  Now we can relax and feel that the world is a comfortable, friendly place where everything can be explained with our intellect.  A place where, with just a little more knowledge, we will never be vulnerable again. 

 

          And then, like the crashing of the Twin Towers, which turned America into a vulnerable, aching ant, the Tower of Babel crashed.  The result was a strategic change.  Unity had led to destruction.  So for now, there would be separation.  Seventy different languages represented insurmountable differences.  The distances were so vast, they couldn’t even find a common language. 

 

          From now on each nation would have a different task.  Each one would have a different nature, different capabilities, and different propensities.3  Like limbs of a body,4 each nation would contribute its diverse gift.  For example, Yavan would teach the world about beauty and aesthetics.  Descendants of Cham would bring worldliness and lust to the universe.  The question of who would be the heart – who would keep mankind focused on the ultimate goal – was left unanswered, a blank check.  The question was who would sign the check. 

 

          And of the myriad people in the world, only Avraham was willing to literally walk through fire, to actualize G-d’s dream for the world.  Avraham was the first Jew. 

 

Who Chose Whom?

 

 

          It was actually a continuous chain of people who insisted on choosing G-d, who, against all odds, refused to drop the ball, who eventually gained the status of the Chose People.  Out of Avraham’s two sons, there was only Yitzchak, and from Yitzchak, only Yaakov and his sons who were willing to make that daring leap into a relationship with G-d. 

 

          So they were chosen.  Chosen because they themselves had chosen.  Chosen because relationship was more important to them than pseudo-independence.

 

          And what were they chosen for?  They were chosen to bring Hashem’s Presence into this physical world.  They were chosen to continue to maintain the vision for the world and to be the bearers and keepers of the torch.  They were chosen to make sure that however far the world strays, there would always be one group of people who remember what we came to this world to do, and knew how to go about doing it.5

 

          It was the most crucial job in the universe, but there was only one applicant.  And that applicant was chosen to be “the Obligated People.”

 

          The angels themselves asked G-d if He was playing favorites by choosing the Jewish People.6  G-d answered very simply: “The Jews were the only ones willing to dedicate their lives to carrying My torch.”

 

          But no one was left out in the cold.7  Each and every human being has infinite value.8  And each one of the seventy nations has something to contribute to their ultimate picture.  Today, the Jewish People are scattered to almost every corner of the world, and one of our jobs is to gather the kedushah of each and every nation, both in the form of converts to Judaism,9 as well as by incorporating the positive traits of each nation.10  And Mashiach himself, who will descend from a convert – whose genes come from outside the Jewish People – will unite humanity11 under the banner of Hashem.12

 

But Aren’t We All Basically The Same?

 

 

          Definitions and distinctions are not popular in a melting pot society.  “A person is a person is a person,” as the saying goes, and if our goal is equality and universality, maybe arbitrary differences between people, nations, and religions are counterproductive?

 

          A friend’s son participated in a hippie convention in Colorado.  At one point, he called his mother, high on the good feelings of being together with like-minded people.  (Okay, so maybe he was high on something else too…)

 

          “Mom,” he said, “The world is so beautiful.  I love it all.  I love the sky.  I love the people here.  I love the whole world.”

 

          They talked some more and at the end of the conversation, he said, “Bye, Mom.  I love you.”

 

          My friend couldn’t resist.  “Stevie, when you say you love me, what do you mean?  Do you love me more that the sky?  More that the people at the convention?  If you love us all the same, then your love for me doesn’t mean that much!”

 

          Judaism has a unique take on unity and equality. On the one hand, Judaism puts up endless borders and boundaries; there are halachic distinctions between night and day, meat and milk, wool and linen, weekday and Shabbos; between different types of seeds and animals, and between people: the tribes; the Kohein, Levi, and Yisrael; adults and children; men and women; Jews and non-Jews.

 

          Yet on the other hand, the credo of the Jew – Shema Yisrael – is about bringing the world to oneness. Unity is not just a warm, fuzzy, kitten-like entity.  Real unity takes strength and courage.  It requires the awareness that in order to be whole, I need each and every person in the world.  It is a validation of differences.  When we lose touch with what makes us different from each other, we lose the handle on our unique contribution.

 

          Each aspect of diversity, each human being, bust squeeze out his uniqueness to the last drop.  Each one of us must experience ourselves on a visceral level as unique and center stage in order to bring our finely honed individuality to the ultimate picture.13

 

Distinct Yet Together

 

 

          We celebrate difference, and yet we celebrate unity.  And it’s not a contradiction.  How is this possible?  The billions of humans on earth make up a complex “machine” meant to carry our Hashem’s will.  When a person or a nation steps out of the machine, and chooses to express his/its individuality in a way that negates the whole, he/it can easily be lost in the long progression of history.  Whole nations have disappeared, leaving nary a trace behind them.  A human being who lives and dies outside of the machine forfeits his significance in the destiny of mankind.  But if he pulls his weight and does his particular mission, then his value equals that of the whole complex, diverse machine.14

 

          At the very moment that our forefather Avraham entered into an exclusive covenant with G-d though circumcision, at the moment when he essentially separated himself from the rest of humanity, he was called by G-d “the father of all nations.”  It was as of G-d said to him, “Know that My covenant with you places you at center stage and strengthens your interconnectedness to the world.  Your uniqueness means that you and your children will never be able to relax back into numbing anonymity.  The eyes of the world will be upon you, and you will be held to a higher standard by Me as well.”15

 

          Being chosen implies destiny, not superiority.16  The whole world rests on our (albeit frail) shoulders.  And we forget that mission at the risk of losing ourselves in the quicksand of insignificance.

 

Welcome To The Club

 

 

          Because we are not talking about inherent superiority but about destiny, Judaism welcomes converts.  Anyone who is wholeheartedly willing to carry the torch with us is welcomed with open arms.  True, we don’t proselytize; true, the conversion process requires tremendous commitment.  But that is only because we value and appreciate the task of a Jew. 

 

          We would be doing a disservice to a person by converting him if he had no real interest in carrying the banner in his day-to-day life.  A person who does not fulfill his obligations is much worse off than one who never had those obligations to begin with.  But if someone who was not born into this chooses to shoulder the burden with us, he is especially dear to G-d.17

 

          And if he chooses not to convert, but to fulfill his G-d-given task as a non-Jew, he too has a place in the machine.  Each and every nation has his task to fulfill.

 

          Our chosenness is not self-serving.  It implies obligations rather than privileges; it is not elitist or exclusionary; it does not represent superiority.  It is certainly not racist.  Jews come in all shapes and sizes and every color of the rainbow. 

 

          This is not to say that there is not a special relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People.  The fact that the Jews have joined their fate with G-d and suffered so terribly and for so long in order to carry His banner, has created a special love between them.18

 

          In that special relationship lies the Divine hope for all of mankind.19

 

 

          Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an outreach organization that teaches Torah to close to six thousand secular Israeli University students each year.

 



1.       “This lower state would never have been meant for man if Adam had not sinned.  It only came into being in the first place as a result of his sin.”  Ramchal, Derech Hashem, Part Two, chapter four, translation by Aryeh Kaplan, Feldheim Publishers.

2.       Gur Aryeh 1:11

3.       See Maharal, Ohr Chadash, p.63 loosely translated as: each nation has its own individual essence.

“The world was then divided into seventy nations, each with its own particular place in the general scheme… The descendants of each of these individuals were thus divided into permanent groupings, each with its own characteristics and limitations.” (Ramchal, Derech Hashem, Part Two, chapter four, translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Feldheim Publishers)

4.       See Meshech Chochma, Breishis 22:14, loosely translated: “All of mankind is like one human being and each one is like one limb …and each limb is dependent on the others… and all of them together uphold humanity and its eternal fate.”

5.       Seforno Shemos 19 on the words “You will be for Me a kingdom of priests”.  Loosely translated: “…to understand and to explain to all of humanity of call in the name of G-d and to serve Him all together as one…”

6.       Yalkut Shimoni 63

7.       “A G-d… Who… gives every man the consciousness of his own unloseable value and worth as a human being, Who in his benevolence and educating Love is near to every man…” ( R SR Hirsch on Genesis 9:27, emphasis his)

8.       Pirkei Avos 3:10

9.       Pesachim 87:b

10.    Tzidkas Hatzakik 256: loosely translated: “And every nation has a spark of holiness that is the source of its existence… And that is the purpose of galus to gather in this spark of goodness to the Jewish People.”

11.    Midrash Tanchuma Breishis 19

12.    “It will happen at the end of days… and all the nations will stream to [the House of G-d].  Many nations will say, ‘Come, let us go up to … the temple of the G-d of Jacob and He will teach of his ways, and we will walk in His paths’ “ (Isaiah 2:3)

13.    Sanhedrin 37a

14.    Pirkei Avos 4:3

15.    Amos 3:2

16.    “[you were chosen for a mission]… and not so that you should glorify yourself with your chosenness…” (Tiferes Yisroel, Avos 3:1)

17.    Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha paraphrased: “The convert is especially dear to G-d, even more than His nation that stood at Sinai.  Because that whole population took upon themselves the yoke of heaven because they experienced the Sinai experience.  But this convert did not see the revelation and he still accepts the yoke of heaven?  Is there anything more precious than that?”

18.    Ramban Devarim 33:26, loosely translated, and paraphrased, “Because they are close to Him and they ‘know’ Him more than any of the other nations… And He will always remember then with mercy for they have been His nation since them.  And He remembers that they are His servants and they have remained faithful to him throughout their exile.  They have remained his faithful servants, and borne the suffering and the oppression…”

19.    In the course of my research for this article, I was helped by the wonderful booklets put our by Ner Leelef, which were an invaluable resource and pointed me in the direction of some of the sources cited. 



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