Chosen nation

That’s what everyone calls us, right? And you would expect it to be front-and-center in the first book of the Torah. But choice — bechira in Hebrew, the plural bechirot being Modern Hebrew for elections — does not come up in Genesis in relation to a people or a land being chosen by God. Instead, it comes up three times in rather bizarre, even macabre contexts.

The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:2-3)

Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east.  (Genesis 13:10-11)

The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead. (Genesis 23:5-6)

The first case is somewhat ambiguous, but it seems to describe a common phenomenon of the antediluvian age, when “sons of God” (descended from Seth) marry “daughters of humans” (descended from Cain). One prominent example of this is Noah marrying Naama (at least according to R. Abba b. Kahana in the Midrash, Gen. Rabba 23:3), and his sons may have followed suit, meaning we are all born from sons of Seth and daughters of Cain. Of course, for everyone else on the planet, this choice didn’t work out as well.

The last case is quite positive: Abraham insists on purchasing this plot for the full price, and it is in many ways the first permanent connection between the people and the land of Israel–even before the bearer of that name is born.

The middle case, from our Torah portion, is an unmitigated disaster. The Torah isn’t much for spoiler alerts, apparently, because we know before Lot calls the local moving company (nothing more Israeli) what will happen to Sodom. In fact, years before the weather forecast for the Jordan Valley is “Sulphurous,” Lot and his fellow Sodomites are captured in war, and their king flees. Abraham has to save him, but Lot doesn’t think twice about his choice. Then, a decade later, amid the fire and brimstone raining from the sky, Lot has to be physically pulled away from his house, where he was presumably sitting at a table, wearing a bowler hat, sipping tea and declaring: “This is fine!”

This triumvirate of choice parallels a statement by Rabbi Johanan in the Talmud (BT Sota 47a): “There are three kinds of favor: the favor of a locality in the estimation of its inhabitants, the favor of a woman in the estimation of her husband, and the favor of an article in the estimation of its purchaser.”

Some say that the reason for this favor (hein) is basely cynical: no one wants to admit a mistake in whom or what they choose. I disagree: on the contrary, this hein is created by the positive declaration one makes every day to say: Yes, this is the one I chose, and I actively choose her/him/them/it again today.

But sometimes we err in our choices. We have to admit that we were wrong, perhaps because we didn’t have all the information, or because our chosen one has changed, or because we have. Regardless, we must not wait until the floodwaters or flames reach our homes to make a new choice. To choose life, to choose love, to choose a form of compassion and of justice that does not end at our front gate. Otherwise, we will have no one but ourselves to blame for our Lot in life.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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