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Are we The Chosen People?

by Rabbi Matt January 10, 2012

Just before Chanukah, a friend asked me, "are we The Chosen People?"  "Why," I asked.  She replied, "because that makes us sound like we think we are superior to everybody else."  

This is a nuanced concept worthy of much deeper discussion than this column allows.  And yet, let us begin.  We are called The Chosen People because of God’s words, not because we place ourselves above all other peoples.  For starters... please, open your Torah to Exodus 19.  As the chapter begins, it is the third month after God redeemed our ancestors from Egyptian slavery.  They are encamped at the base of Mount Sinai.  Moses ascended the mountain and the Lord said, "thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:  You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me.  Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.  Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.These are words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."

We were not the first ones to be approached, we were at the bottom of the list.

We are called The Chosen People because, according to the Torah, God said “you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples" and "you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  The Almighty chose us, it was not the determination of our ancestors.  So, if someone has problems with the term "Chosen People," that person's argument should be taken up with the Torah.  And of course, discussing, agreeing, or disagreeing with the Torah and with God, are entirely within the bounds of Jewish tradition.  Our first Jewish ancestor, Abraham, argued with God in Genesis 18 to save the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Are we superior to other people?  If we acknowledge ourselves as "The Chosen People" cannot this lead to haughtiness or arrogance?  Yes it can, however, this would be contrary to most of what I have learned and taught.  The Midrash teaches, we are not superior to the other peoples of the earth, rather we have been chosen for special responsibility.  As an individual, have you ever been chosen for a special task with extraordinary expectations and consequences?  As the Jewish people we have been.  We are to take God’s Torah to the world and share it with those who are interested.  We are to live the Torah by observing the mitzvot, by acting compassionately, by fighting evil, by upholding good, by doing acts of tzedakah, by gathering for worship, by supporting the modern state of Israel, by being good citizens, and by being examples worthy of emulation.

Haughty and arrogant?  There are several midrashim which teach that God went to all the other peoples first and asked them "will you accept My Torah?"  One by one the other peoples said, "no, we are not interested in living by Your commandments."  Only then did the Almighty come to us.  We were not the first ones to be approached, we were at the bottom of the list.  However, we are the ones who answered, as in Exodus 24: 7,  “we will do” the commandments and “we will hearken” to the Torah.

Even if we were not God's first choice, doesn't the fact that we were "chosen" at all, make us superior to all other peoples?  Once again, I think not and I hope we do not consider ourselves susperior.  I am grateful to be one of The Chosen People, but also realize that if "chosen" means I am smarter, taller, thinner, faster, wittier, better looking, more pious, and more ethical than all the non-Jews in the world... all I have to do is look in the mirror.  All too often throughout our 4,000 year history "chosen" has meant chosen for opprobrium, chosen for persecution, chosen for hatred and extermination.  In those cases, we have beseeched God, "Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, couldn't you have chosen someone else?"

As God’s Chosen People, we have been chosen for special responsibility.  We are to learn and grapple with the Torah and Jewish thought, share it with others, and do our best to exhibit good behavior.  We are to be good examples, as individuals, and as God’s Chosen people.  We are not superior to others people, however, we believe that we have been called to live up to extremely high expectations, and we have been chosen to do our level best.  May God help us, each and every day, to live up to the high standards which are expected of us.

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