By Rabbi Howard Alter
Moses is quoted in this week’s Torah reading describing the Jewish nation as God’s Chosen People who are set aside from all other nations.
In the millennia since Moses, his words have elicited a variety of reactions. Many Jews have been inspired by them, finding in them a source of pride and a foundation for their communal identity. Others read in them a message that runs contrary to the universalist ideal that all people are of equal value and react with embarrassment and dismay.
While some from among the nations of the world admire the Jewish nation for being God’s “chosen,” others respond with derision. Jew-haters through the centuries have pointed to Moses’ words as an unveiled claim to Jewish supremacy and caricatured them by maintaining that they are the basis of a program of worldwide Jewish domination. Many have sought to take the mantle described by Moses for themselves, saying that they and not the Jews are now God’s chosen.
The assertion that the Jews are God’s chosen is presented as part of Moses’ farewell message to the Children of Israel. He has led them out of slavery to the gates of the land that God had promised. Now, before he leaves them, he seeks to inspire them to remain true to the laws and ideals that God revealed at Mount Sinai as they go about building a new society in their new home.
As we read in Deuteronomy, chapter 14, Moses tells his people, “You are children of the Lord, your God. … For you are a holy nation to the Lord, your God, who has chosen you to be for Him a nation that is treasured from among all the nations that are on the face of the earth.”
Critics read in the text an arrogance that assumes superiority over all others. Their interpretation, however, is mistaken. Read in its broader context as part of Moses’ farewell message, the Biblical verse understands Israel’s standing as God’s chosen people as conditional, bringing with it a unique set of responsibilities rather than a special status or value.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a thought leader of the Orthodox community in mid-19th century Germany, explains that the verse’s statement “[He] has chosen you” is a direct continuation of its earlier statement, “For you are a holy nation.” God has chosen to give the nation of Israel the opportunity to be “a holy nation.”
Should the Jewish nation take advantage of the opportunity and act as a holy nation, it will achieve the standing of having been chosen for the task and benefit for it. Should it turn away from that opportunity and act contrary to its holiness, its status as a chosen nation will not mean a thing.
Earlier in Deuteronomy, the biblical text makes clear that the nation of Israel should not presume it was chosen on its merit relative to the nations of the world. “It is not because you are the greatest of nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you … but the Lord favored you because of the oath he made to your forebears” (Deuteronomy 7). As Professor Jeffrey Tigay writes in the introduction to his commentary on Deuteronomy, “The relationship between God and the Jewish nation is not conceived in chauvinistic terms. Rather, God chose Israel because of God’s love for their ancestors.”
Speaking with the voice of Moses, the Torah devotes much of this week’s reading to detailing what we, the nation of Israel, need to do in order to serve as God’s chosen holy nation. First, it says, we need to respect the holiness and maintain the dignity of the human body; to do otherwise would be incompatible with our status as “Children of God.” Second, applying the lessons inherent in the practices of Kashruth which are laid out in the parshah, we need to respect the life and integrity of other species with which we share our world.
Ultimately, the world and all life that is on it belong to God, not to us; we are merely the caretakers working on God’s behalf to cultivate and preserve God’s creation. Finally, with tithes, proper treatment of servants and employees, gifts to the poor and acts of kindness to those who feel oppressed, we need to promote the dignity of all persons who are part of our society.
These tasks are inherent in being God’s chosen and “treasured nation.” That they are read as the Torah portion with which we begin the month of Elul and the period of reflection leading to Rosh Hashanah is appropriate. Their underlying principles are our heritage and their accomplishment is our national service.
We may take pride in the knowledge that we were chosen for such responsibility. Even more, we are humbled by the challenge we face as we work toward its fulfillment.
Rabbi Howard Alpert writes and teaches on Jewish topics. He is a past co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.