I so vividly remember the early months after giving birth to my first child, Leorah, consistently saying, “this is the best age,” when she reached 3 months, only to say the same thing when she reached 6 months, 12 months, 2 years…. each month or year became “the best.” I sometimes feel that way about Torah portions. I study one, feel really moved by its teaching, state that it’s my favorite, only to find a new favorite several weeks later. So here I am with a “new favorite,” Yitro.
What a Torah portion we have this week! Make way for Charleton Heston as he climbs Mount Sinai. Yitro is, indeed, filled with familiar elements. Imagine the following:
Three months after the Exodus, the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Sinai. God offers a special covenant confirming the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people: “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep MY covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.”
When Moses reports this offer to the people, they respond in unison. “All that Adonai has spoken, we will do!” For three days the Israelites purify themselves. On the morning of the third day, they hear thunder and lightning, see a dense cloud on the mountain, and hear a loud blast of the shofar. Moses ascends to the mountaintop as God descends. God tells Moses to return to the people, and when he and they are together, God speaks the words of the Ten Commandments.
This is the high point of the Book of Exodus – the encounter between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Here, God and the Jews meet and exchange promises of loyalty and love. Here, God and the people embrace the Ten Commandments – the first articulation of our sacred, mutual brit, our covenant.
Immediately preceding this momentous event, God speaks to Moses, and clearly articulates a notion of the Jews as the Chosen People: “Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a nation of priests and a holy nation.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, in The Bedside Torah, comments that this one sentence indicates the tension inherent in the concept of “chosen people,” a concept I have struggled with over the years to explain to students. How can the God of the Universe choose just one people? Some commentators have asked if God is truly omniscient, isn’t the restriction of God’s choice to one particular people something we should question? Doesn’t God love everybody equally? The impetus behind these questions has caused some of us to be uncomfortable with any claim to chosenness. It feels a bit like an arrogant claim, unfair to the rest of humanity.
But is that the only way to understand this central biblical claim? My preparation for this d’var has helped me to better understand this concept. We could look at it in a way that is consistent with both the holiness of all humanity, and of the uniqueness of the Jews. The “chosenness” of the Jews can be seen as consistent with the assertion that God loves and cares for each human being. We are all precious.
Chosenness implies a uniqueness, a particular purpose. The statement, “I was chosen today,” is incomplete unless I specify what it is I was chosen for. Similarly, Jewish chosenness, as Rabbi Artson points out, is a sentence fragment, grammatically and theologically incomplete. What completes the chosenness of the Jews is the assertion that Jews were (and are) chosen to embody the life and values of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. By living a life centered on mitzvot and by constantly growing as Jews, we choose to be chosen. We allow the brit to live by the way we conduct our lives. As with any love relationship, both partners have the power to affirm or not affirm that relationship of their own free will. The idea of brit places that enormous responsibility in our hands, no less than in those of God.
In the words of an ancient rabbinic commentary to Exodus, the phrase “and you shall be Mine” means, “you shall be turned to Me and be occupied with the words of the Torah.” God doesn’t love Jews better, but perhaps, expects us, demands of us to be aware of our responsibility to be a light unto the nations.
By immersing ourselves in the study and practice of Torah, we as Jews renew our unique relationship with God. By living lives centered on God and mitzvot, we justify the claim, not of being God’s only love, but of being God’s first. And in building communities of decency and love, by working for justice, we can assist others in cultivating their own personal relationship with God, as well as joining hands together to build a world that is just, righteous, compassionate, and worthy of God. We choose to be chosen, a more accurate description of the concept and one that should inspire us to be active partners with God in making this a better world. Kein yihi ratzon.