'Abraham's departure from Ur Kasdim,’ an 1850 painting by Jozsef Molnar.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
We Jews believe ourselves to be the “chosen people.” It is one of our fundamental beliefs and serves as our identity to ourselves and to the entire world. It is also both one of our most unifying ideas and also one of the most divisive.
What is the source of such hubris? We find the answer in the Bible itself. Scripture makes it clear many times that Israel has been singled out to be in covenant with God and that we are an am segula (a treasured people), a goy kadosh (a holy people) and a mamlechet kohanim (kingdom of priests). The question is, of course, why Israel was selected, and the Bible is not shy on this issue either: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:19).
In other words, God chose Abraham because God knew that Abraham was the one who can be trusted to keep God’s way of doing justice and righteousness. It was not a proclivity for military strength, nor our ability to construct and build, nor was it our technological accomplishments.
Truth be told, Israel was bested by all its neighbors in all of these fields. The factor that was most important to God was our performance of justice and righteousness and that we followed God’s way.
This of course flips the entire paradigm upside down.
It’s not so much that God chose Abraham, but, rather, it’s Abraham that chose God.
While this may be a new way of thinking, it is not at all radical. In the biblical account we first meet Abraham on his way to Canaan even before God commands him to do so. At this stage Abraham is 75 years old and has lived his entire life in the silence of God.
The Midrash picks up on these missing 75 years and tries to fill the gap by telling all sorts of stories of Abraham’s youth. The stories of Abraham’s discovery of God as a toddler, of knocking down the idols in his father’s shop and of being thrown into the fiery furnace, whether they are historically true or not, serve the purpose of filling in the missing years of Abraham’s life.
Eventually, after a long life of silence on God’s part, the Midrash makes it seem as if Abraham intuits that his destiny belongs in Canaan and starts making his way there. God, seeing that Abraham is ahead of the game, finally breaks his silence and bursts into Jewish history by appearing to him and telling him: “Go for yourself from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (ibid. 12:1-3).
The Torah does not begin with the story of Abraham.
The first two portions in the Torah deal with man on a universal level. After the failure of Adam in the Garden of Eden, the murder of Abel by Cain, the Flood of Noah and the Tower of Babel, God chooses a different paradigm – that of a single individual.
The purpose of the Torah is to teach. In fact, that is what the very word “Torah” means: teaching. It is for this reason that the Torah goes out of its way to teach us these stories as a pedagogical means to demonstrate that the universal model simply does not work. It is this reason that God needs to focus on Abraham and his seed. Even the choice of Abraham’s progeny might not have been exclusive to Israel. We are told that Abraham is the father of many nations, yet it was only Isaac and his grandson Jacob who sought to continue Abraham’s legacy.
Even after the Exodus from Egypt, which was a unique event between Israel and God, all were invited to Sinai for the revelation. Our Sages teach us that this was the reason that the Torah was given in the desert and not in the Land of Israel. The Sinai Desert was chosen to allow equal access to anyone and everyone to come.
The Midrash proves this universal ideal by telling us that God visited each and every nation before offering the Torah to Israel. Each one asked what was written in it. Upon finding out that its contents violated their national proclivities, they refused the offer.
Only Israel said “Na’aseh v’nishma” (we will do and we will hear). We didn’t need to hear what was in it.
We knew that it was from God and that was enough for us. We put the word “na’aseh” before the word “nishma” and earned two spiritual crowns on our heads. Those two crowns are what makes us special and unique. Yet even they do not make us exclusive.
Crowns are an external ornament. They are not limbs. They can be worn by any who dare to pick them up and place them on their heads. Our Sages tell us that while the crown of royalty was given exclusively to the children of King David and the crown of priesthood was given exclusively to the children of Aaron, the crown of Torah is open to any who have the courage put it on their heads.
Really, therefore, it was Israel that chose God, and not the other way around. We are not really the chosen people but the choosing people.
If Jews are “chosen” only because of their choice of God, then we must constantly continue to choose God; otherwise, we will disappear. We must continually make choices that include God in our lives and choose to include Him in our consciousness. Only then are we truly the chosen people. The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.