When I was in NCSY many years ago, I remember getting a pamphlet called: The Chosen People; Chosen for What? I can’t remember anything from that booklet. So much for catchy titles. But the question is still a good one: What does it mean to be ‘chosen’? How did it happen? What does it mean to me?
I think the best time to discuss this topic is on our Chagim, because when our Sages composed our prayers about 3500 years ago, they began the silent devotion on our holidays like this: You have chosen us from among all peoples! You have loved us and showed favor to us. You exalted us above all other tongues (cultures), and You have sanctified us through Your Mitzvot. You have brought us near, our Monarch, to perform Your service, and Your great and holy Name is called out upon us.
Our three Pilgrimage Festivals are about our chosenness. Most of the time our central prayers are about the power of the Universal God, but not on CHAGIM. The holiday prayers are about the special relationship between God and the Jews as demonstrated by the events of these holidays; the Exodus, the Epiphany at Sinai and the miraculous sojourn in the desert.
What do we know about this relationship? There are a number of verses which express the special nature of the Jews’ relationship with God. I’ll mention just two. The first really expresses the basic idea: Yet it was to your ancestors that the Eternal was drawn out of love for them, so that you, their lineal descendants, were chosen from among all peoples—as is now the case (Devarim 10:15). God loved our ancestors, and we continue to benefit from that special relationship.
However, the verse I really want to parse has a particular difficulty: Now if you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special possession out of all the peoples, although the whole earth is mine (Exodus 19:5). The biggest difficulty in this verse is the word SEGULA (special possession). What does this word teach about the special relationship between God and the Jews?
Let’s look at a few commentaries on this critical term. Rashi says,
‘Segula means a cherished treasure as in ‘treasures of kings’ (Kohelet 2:8).’
The S’forno said,
‘More treasured than all the other nations. Seeing that the entire earth belongs to Me, I am able to raise your stature above that of all the other nations.’
The Ohr Hachayim gets a bit mystical in his comment:
The term SEGULA means something possessing supernatural properties so we view it as a treasure…God promises the Jewish people that through listening to His commandments they will become such a people for Him, a people whose history defies all accepted norms.
So, SEGULA means that the Jews are ‘special’. Does that mean we Jews should feel superior? Is this position racist or discriminatory? I’m sure some feel this way. But I believe very emphatically that this isn’t true. To help us understand I want to quote from a very special individual who died this past year. Rabbi Professor Shalom Rosenberg was one of those unusual people whose kindness was only outshone by his wit and intelligence.
Prof. Rosenberg, who grew up in South America, compared the supposedly universal position of Christianity with the ‘particularist’ vision of Judaism. The Christians (and to a certain extent Islam) try to convert everyone to their point of view, because their catholic or universal religion is the only path to salvation. No one gets to heaven without the Church, and that includes the holy Jews of the Bible who lived before the advent of their messiah. Ultimately, Judaism, on the other hand, believes that all righteous can earn a place in the world to come. So, who is universal and who is particularistic?
As Prof. Rosenberg sees it:
However, the ‘particularistic’ Jew is tolerant, and allows for pluralism, for he claims that there are many paths to salvation. The covenant at Sinai created a road to salvation which obligates the Jews and transforms them into the priests of the world, into a holy nation. However, the Jewish covenant with God does not preclude other routes to salvation. We must therefore acknowledge the potential for synthesis between particularism and universalism, between the commitment to a specific framework, and openness to the world.
This idea is crucial to understanding the special message of Sukkot. During the Temple service of Sukkot, 70 bulls were offered, representing the 70 nations of the world, which symbolized all humanity. Even more telling is the Haftorah of the first day of Sukkot:
And the Eternal shall be King over all the earth; in that day the Eternal shall be One, and His Name One…All who remain of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the Supreme God of Hosts and observe Sukkot (Zechariah 14:9 & 16).
So, Sukkot carries the central holiday message of all CHAGIM, the Jews are the special chosen people. But Sukkot is also the universal harvest holiday which will draw all humanity to Yerushalayim. In recognition of this last idea, for the past 67 years many thousands of Christians have marched the streets of Yerushalayim on Chol HaMoed Sukkot (this year the Jerusalem March will take place on Wednesday, October 4). These ideas don’t clash; they are complementary.
As the Shadal (Shmuel David Luzatto) put it:
The belief of Israel relative to the difference between them and other peoples is that the Hebrew sees all men as created in the image of G-d, with no man being judged for his belief but for his deeds…But God made a covenant with Israel. And when God gave them the Torah, He confirmed this belief in them, saying (Shmot 19:5) ‘If you heed My voice and you keep My covenant, you will be treasured by Me above all other peoples, for mine is the whole earth (and all men are dear to Me), and you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ And to this end,He increased for them Torah and mitzvot, so that all the members of Israel be as priests relative to the other nations.
So, be joyous this Sukkot! But never forget that chosenness is a responsibility, not a privilege. That’s why you were chosen. Take it seriously. That awareness will bring Zechariah’s vision, hopefully soon. Chag Sameach!