Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Chosen People?

We Jews have a lot to be proud of. We have a long and ancient history. We have been beacons of justice and ethical teachings for countless generations. We have survived more attempts at annihilation than we care to number. And despite everything—exile, civilizations rising and falling, ever-shifting politics and locales—we have survived and have been successful beyond anyone’s imagination. There’s a very special feeling that we have about our identity as Jews. Yes, it’s pride. But it’s also gratitude and wonder, and a deep feeling of a collective heritage and destiny in this world that we share. And there’s also a phrase that often gets quoted and bandied about: we’re the “Chosen People.” Many of us associate our special feeling of Jewishness with that “chosenness.” How could we not—there is so much that feels special about being Jewish. But for obvious reasons, the “Chosen People” expression also engenders a lot of resentment from other peoples, both non-Jewish and Jewish. Does it really mean that we think that God made us inherently better than everyone else? This week’s Torah-reading has one of the core references that have given rise to the idea of the “Chosen People.” It says, “And God has affirmed --‘Hayom’—today--‘L’hiyot lo l’Am Segulah—to be God’s ‘Treasured People.’ So the original expression is ‘treasured,’ not exactly ‘Chosen.’ But the Torah then goes on and says, “God will set you--‘Elion al kol haGoyim’—above all the nations—‘Lit’hilah, uleShem, Ul’tifaret’—in praise, in fame, and in glory, and you shall be an “Am Kadosh,” a Holy People to the Lord Your God. When you hear words like that, it’s hard not to think that we have a religion with a superiority complex! In all fairness, all religions understand themselves to bear ultimate truth. All religions see their own adherents as possessing a special role and destiny. And so Israelite superiority in the ancient world is one aspect of this teaching. Luckily, however, we have the wealth of the Jewish tradition to turn to that can give us some more insight into this teaching. The good news is that anyone who takes the idea of the Chosen People to mean that we Jews should think that we’re inherently better than everyone else, is confused. The great 18th-century Rebbe, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev discussed this very line, and brought to light some very interesting insights that we don’t necessarily notice on the surface. He said, yes, it certainly says that we Jews are a people treasured by God. It certainly places us over the many idol-worshiping nations of the ancient world as morally superior. But there are some interesting hints of other dimensions to this text as well. When it says, for example, that we will be superior to the other nations in praise, in fame, and in glory, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev notices that those three adjectives are in an interesting order. If we are indeed some kind of superior class of supermen and superwomen, wouldn’t our fame be renowned, and first in the series of adjectives to describe us? But it’s not. “Fame” comes second, not first. Levi Yitzchak explains that what makes us so special to God, so treasured, so holy, isn’t that we’re smarter or better than anyone else. Take a look at the ancient Israelites at the moment that these lines were originally uttered. They were finishing their 40-year wandering in the desert. Over all the long years, they had really messed up. They made massive mistakes. They endlessly lost faith, they had complained, they were regularly willing to give up and run back to slavery in Egypt. They made the Golden Calf. They even mounted a full-scale rebellion at one point against Moses and Aaron, and their leaders were only stopped when God opened the earth and swallowed them up. Not a good track record, and certainly not people distinguished as on a higher plane than all others. But at that moment, as they were poised to go over the River Jordan into the Promised Land, they made it. Despite all their failings and sins, they had climbed back up. They found a way to rekindle their faith. They were devoted to the Covenant with God, and were brave enough to face their new lives in the land. The great 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noticed that the word “Hayom,” meaning ‘today,’ keeps appearing again and again at this section of the Torah. He explains that we truly became a treasured people ‘hayom,’ on that day, after all the 40 years were over—because we were willing to take responsibility for our past and for our destiny right then—even before we entered the land, even before we had anything, while we were still in the wilderness. Hayom, on that day, we owned up to ourselves. We made T’shuvah, we returned to the best in our humanity. In our willingness to get real with ourselves, to make T’shuvah, to honestly Return, this is what makes us an ‘Am Segulah, a treasured people to God. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains: you know why the Torah uses the word ‘Tifaret,’ ‘Glory’ to describe us? Is it because we’re just so great? No! The only real Tiferet in the world, the only real glory is when we human beings are willing to embrace even our worst sins, our worst mistakes, our most shameful moments. And instead of running away from them, we bravely go into them. And we learn from them. And we use the insight from these experiences to be the very cornerstone of our strength, of our faith, of our bravery. That turn-around, that transformation, is what is truly glorious. And this is why, according the Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, those three adjectives are in their unique order. The last and final word is Tifaret, glory. Glory comes last in the series, because true glory comes at last: when we can transform even our greatest failures into the sources of our greatest success. In this way, glory comes last, but certainly not least. The thing we thought was the least worthy part of ourselves—our guilts, our shames, our mistakes—this can be our crowning jewel. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak describes how God uses our past sins that we have transformed as a garment that God proudly wears. When we really make T’shuvah, that’s when we become the glory of God! So indeed, God did choose the Israelites. God did set them above all the depraved and immoral idolatrous nations of the ancient world, and bestowed upon them the merit of inheriting the Land of Israel. But that chosenness is not a badge of honor that we get to wear no matter what. It’s God’s banner, worn when we are willing to be like our ancestors in the desert. Just like those ancient Israelites, we have all made some bad mistakes in our lives. We all have so many things we wish we hadn’t said or done. We have things in our past that we’re ashamed of. But Hayom, on this day, we can go inside and transform our past to become our greatest strength.. Rosh HaShanah is just a week and a half away. On that day, we will say ‘Hayom Harat Olam,’ this day is the birthday of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, we will remind ourselves, over and over, that we certainly are not more special than anything else in this miraculous world that is treasured by God. But like our ancestors before us, we become a people, we become a treasure to God, when we own up to our lives. We get to be a shining example to all the nations of the world that our humanity and this world is not hopeless. Even if we have made a mess of our lives and this world, we can always turn it all around Hayom, today, right now, when we turn our hearts around and face the Truth. This year, may we embrace the Truth that if we are chosen for anything, it is teach all the peoples of this world how we are all the treasure of God.