No concept has vexed modern Jews more than the idea that the Jewish people are the “chosen people”. In modern Hebrew, “chosen people” is translated as “עם הנבחר”, familiar to us from the wording of the blessing before we read the Torah – “אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים – who has chosen us from all of the nations”. The Torah, however, uses the term “עם סגולה – the treasured people”.
What bothers people who reject this idea? To some it is a rejection of the association of “chosenness” with the idea of ethnic or racial superiority – an idea which does exist among Jewish thinkers like the medieval poet and philosopher, Yehudah HaLevi and the Hasidic master and founder of Habad, Shneur Zalman of Liady. Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, who was one of the most vociferous modern critics of the idea, noted: Modern minded Jews can no longer believe that the Jews constitute a divinely chosen people.” (Reconstructionist Shabbat Prayer Book, 1945) Even those who willingly accepted the idea, like the famous Reform Rabbi, Leo Baeck, sought to redefine the concept in less theological fraught terms: “Every people can be chosen for a history, for a share of the history of humanity…but more history has been assigned to the Jewish people than other people.” (This People Israel, p. 402) One is struck in these critiques by the positive attempts to see the Jews as a part of the universal whole of the world – the attempts to feel a part of the larger picture – to be a little (or a lot) less particularistic, a trend which has again gained popularity.
This week’s parasha offers us a glimpse at the Torah’s understanding of this concept: “This day The Lord your God charges you to do these statutes and laws, and you shall keep and do them with all your heart and with all your being. The Lord you have proclaimed (he’emarta) to be your God and to go in His ways and to keep His statutes and His commands and His laws and to heed His voice. And the Lord has proclaimed (he’emirkha) you today to be to Him a treasured people (am segula), as He has spoken to you and to keep His commands, and to set you high above all the nations that He made, for praise and for acclaim and for glory, and for you to be a holy people to the Lord your God as he has spoken.” (Deut. 26:16-19)
The key to understanding the intent of this passage rests on the verb “liha’amir”, the root of which is “alef mem resh”, familiar to us as the root of the word meaning “to say”. The form of the verb used here is unique, consequently its meaning is unclear. In the above translation, it is understood to be a more intensive way of expressing “to say”. Others translate it, according to its verb form (hiphil) to mean “to cause” (See J. Tigay, Dvrarim, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 646)
Either way, it is significant that the same word is used for both God’s declaration and that of the children of Israel, implying that the relationship between them is reciprocal. Nachmanides (Spain 13th century) best expresses this idea: ‘Since your accepted upon yourselves all of the Torah… you have exalted God in the world so that He will be recognized exclusively as God…[consequently,] God exalted you as a “treasured people”. (abridged)
This understanding sheds new light on the significance of “chosenness” not only in how it reflects on the relationship of God with the children of Israel but also regarding our relationships with others. It teaches us the importance of reciprocity. If there is a special relationship between God and Israel, it is dependent on give and take; so, too, we should keep this in mind in our relationships with others. The bottom line for us to remember is that chosenness is not a free gift. It is a two-way street.