Passover is the formation and creation of the Jewish people. In effect, we celebrate our birth as a nation. I had a very interesting encounter recently that gave a whole new meaning to my Passover.
I was dead asleep on an intercontinental flight and my stewardess woke me up. Why? She wanted to inform me that there was no Kosher food and that she was sincerely sorry. I had no sleep the night before, so I was in a half daze and I didn’t understand why I was woken up for what seemed to me what was relatively unimportant. But then she began telling me unexpectedly, surprisingly, part of her life story. She told me how although she lives in Germany, she grew up in Kenya and her mother used to tell her to always bless the Jewish people because we are the chosen ones. She went on to explain the importance of the Jewish people in her house. She spoke so lovingly, so passionately, and even though I was confused because I had just woken up, I was deeply moved. I was speechless by her emotions and all I could keep saying was “I really appreciate that, thank you,” over and over again.
In retrospect, I don’t think she woke me up to tell me there was no food. Because I didn’t ask for any and I visibly wasn’t interested. And I don’t think that’s protocol in the airline industry. Nor do I think people wake up other people unless the matter is urgent. We have an intuitive understanding that we shouldn’t intrude on someone’s sleep just like we shouldn’t intrude on someone’s privacy. I think she woke me up because there was a matter that was pent up in her heart for many many years; something that intrigued her, something that moved her. For many years she had this internal tension, a gripping emotion for a people and she felt that maybe she found someone who she can release the pressure of her feelings. She felt, on a subconscious level, certainly matters of the heart justify the waking of a person – so she woke me up. And from my perspective, lending my presence to someone’s passions was worth being woken up for.
It was a bizarre and beautiful encounter. My experience made me ponder, once again, what it means to be the Chosen People. If you ask most Jews, they at best feel uncomfortable with such a concept; at worst, they see this idea as elitist if not downright bigoted, and something that should be expunged from our history. Yet for this woman, she related very differently to this concept. For her, the idea that Jews are the Chosen People was an integral part of the values her mother bestowed her; it was a value she cherished, a philosophy that she deliberately chose to make part of the fabric of her current worldview. This woman was proud of the Jewish people and her understanding of our role as the Chosen People.
What did she see about this idea of Jewish Chosenness that inspired her? This woman sensed something profound in the very existence of the Jewish people. The idea of Jewish chosenness as didn’t diminish her standing but uplifted it. She felt ennobled by the sacred task of the Jewish people. And she was compelled to express her appreciation to a stranger half-sleep, half-dazed, but deeply stirred.
I do believe the Jewish nation was chosen. But what that means to me, and what I believe she intuited, is that the Jewish nation was chosen to reveal that ALL men are chosen. That ALL men bear the image of G-d. That man is man and not animal. That we ALL have a calling in life and are endowed with purpose and meaning. That we are not but a speck of dust on the surface of infinity, but that we are all dear to the infinite G-d. That we ALL are called to live a code of conduct that is elevated. And ALL men, irrespective of their background or upbringing or religion, can live in a way that makes them worthy of the world to come. Our chosenness isn’t there to tell us we are better but to spread the word of G-d that we are beloved by G-d. A G-d of love who created us in love. The Jewish people were given the lofty status of the Chosen People to spread throughout the world that the human being is chosen.
With all the active attempts to change, justify, and be apologetic for the words of the Torah, including amongst the Orthodox, many of us are embarrassed of our Jewishness. Many of us might practice Judaism, celebrate it, identify with it, and even defend it, but we see our Jewishness as woven with problematic notions and arcane philosophies.
We have to cease judging the Torah by modern values. We must stop suffering from an inferiority complex, that our Torah which endowed man with a moral vision is in any way inferior to moral fads. We have nothing to apologize for our Torah and we must stop feeling any emotional inferiority for its ways. The Torah’s greatest passion is compassion and it has endowed man with the concept of peace, ennobled humanity with the image of G-d, and bestowed upon us purpose in a meaningless world. When you trace the birth of the most important ideas that are the bedrock of the West, whether it be free speech or the abolition of slavery, were all rooted in the Torah.
The Torah’s morality is beyond what we can dream of and what we can ever aspire to; its vision for a moral world exceeds our wildest imagination. There is nothing in history morally or intellectually comparable to the Torah. And after 3300 years, the Torah’s profundity about life is unmatched by any other literature.
The Jewish people were able to be a positive influence and spread the light of G-d only because we sensed and believed in our mission. We believed in G-d; we believed in His Torah. And we believed in ourselves. And through this tripod of belief, we were able to survive in the face of empires and create a society unique in the ancient world, of the equal dignity of all as fellow citizens under the sovereignty of a loving G-d. We have played the role of ethical torch-bearers for over three millennia. If we can take our Chosenness seriously, it is life-transforming; and only and only then can we begin to transform the world. One of the greatest tragedies of modern Judaism is we became embarrassed of our Torah and embarrassed of the sacred responsibility of Chosenness that G-d has called upon us.
With that, I want to wish the Jewish people a happy happy birthday. For me, it is the greatest honor that my lot was cast amongst such a people. My hope is on this Pesach we can look deep and draw out our sense of self-worth to once again become an Am Kadosh – a holy people. We can again be proud of who we are, and show unfettered loyalty to our Torah. For “on that day, the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”