Saturday, 2 December 2017

Choosing to be Chosen - Rabbi Steven Saks

 Haftarah of Vayeishev is Amos 2:6-3:8

Originally published 4/19/10, 1:00 pm.
Choosing to be Chosen
By Rabbi Steven Saks

Jews have often been criticized for referring to themselves as “the chosen people.” After all, the referring to oneself as chosen does sound pompous and elitist.
The idea of choice is central to the holiday of Shavuot. God chose to reveal himself at Mount Sinai to the Israelites and the Israelites chose to accept the Torah. The Israelites when offered the Torah accepted with enthusiasm responding naaseh v’nishmah literally meaning we will do and we will listen. In other words the Israelites were so eager to accept the Torah they pledged to fulfill its precepts before they had the opportunity to hear them. It’s like signing a contract first then reading it. Regardless, the Israelites accepted upon themselves God’s mitzvoth commandments as spelled out in the Torah.
Through the performance of the mitzvoth the Israelites were to become a Goy Kodosh a holy nation. In other words simply being an Israelite does not make one a holy person. Rather the Israelite becomes holy by acting in a holy manner, by performing the mitzvoth. The idea that the Israelite is holy simply because he is a member of the chosen people is firmly rejected by the prophet Amos.
Bible Scholar Bernard Anderson points out that the prophet Amos repudiated the idea that the God of Israel was a national God that Israel could mobilize in the service of the nation’s own interest. According to Amos, being chosen by God did not entitle Israel to special privilege and protection rather it meant that Israel had accepted upon herself the responsibility to serve God. According to Amos, God is a universal God who is active in the histories of all nations as demonstrated by Amos 9:7.
Are you not like the Kushites to me, O people of Israel? Says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel out of the land of Egypt? And the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?

The other nations have not realized this because they have not shared the intimate relationship with God that Israel has been allowed to.
Rabbi Hertz in his commentary on the Bible explains that two teachings are enunciated through Amos 9:7. The first is that God has guided all other nations as well as Israel. All races are equally dear to him, and the hand of providence is evident not only in the migration of Israel but in every historical movement. The second teaching is that God’s special relationship with Israel rests on moral foundations. A degenerate Israel is of no more worth to God than other immoral nations.
Amos is believed to have prophesized between the years 765-750 B.C.E during the reign of Jeroboam the Second, a time of great affluence for the northern Kingdom of Israel. The prophet condemns the people for engaging in hallow religious ritual while failing to care for the poor.
So we see that choosing to be “the chosen” means accepting additional responsibility. In part, potential converts are discouraged from converting to Judaism because of this added responsibility. Yet, one can chose to become a member of “the chosen people” if he or she desires.
The Rabbis teach that the Torah was given in the dessert, in a barren area, because it is hefgar unclaimed property. In other words anyone can accept the yoke of the Torah upon him or her self. The Book of Ruth which is read on Shavuot tells the story of Ruth, the Moabite who is considered the quintessential convert to Judaism. Many female converts choose Ruth as their Hebrew name. Ruth did not have yichus an impressive lineage. The Moabites were enemies of Israel and descended from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his eldest daughter as detailed in Genesis 19.
Yet, Ruth chooses to follow her mother in law Naomi back to Israel and becomes an Israelite. Ruth is not shunned for becoming an Israelite; rather Jewish history views her as an exalted figure. Ruth is the great grandmother of King David from whom the Messiah will emerge. So we see that the Messiah will be a descendant from a woman who was born a non-Jew.
Anyone who believes that he/she is superior to others because of his/her Jewish birth misses the message of the Book of Ruth. Being chosen does not confer any sort of genetic superiority rather, being chosen means that we choose to develop our relationship with God.
As we celebrate the giving of the Torah lets us choose to strengthen our relationship with God by climbing the ladder of mitzvoth. No matter what we consider ourselves, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, we can climb the ladder of mitzvoth by increasing our ritual observance (such as attending services more often). Just as importantly we can climb the ladder of mitzvoth by increasing our observance of laws which govern our relationships with fellow human beings (such as giving charity and conducting business honestly).
By climbing the ladder of mitzvoth we are ascending the heights of Mount Sinai and in the process become better individuals. May we all reach new heights this Shavuot.

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Note: Rabbi Saks is one of my students - Rabbi Rich Wolpoe

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