Holy Nation, Batman!: Yitro 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: How important is it to have a unique destiny? Do you subscribe to the idea that “normal is boring”? In what ways is being different a badge of honor, and in what ways is it more or less inconvenient? 
As we often teach, the idea of Israel being the “chosen people” does not imply that it is better than anyone else. But in this week’s Torah portion, as our ancestors prepare for an encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai, they are about to discover that they are, at the very least, responsible for taking a special path.

Text: “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.” (Exodus 19:5-6a)

Commentary #1: “All Israel is endowed with sovereignty, for the nation as a whole has become royal in character. Thus it is hardly surprising that the mitsvot, the covenant stipulations of the Sinaitic pact, are as often couched in the second person singular as in the plural. Both Israel as a nation and the Israelite as an individual stand in the position of royal vassals of the divine suzerain … Israel’s special identity demands a radical separation from the ways of the nations. The whole world is YHWH’s, but Israel is to be his ‘treasured possession … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ a sacral state, not a political one.” – Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion

Commentary #2: “There is nothing quite like this in the annals of the religious experience of humankind. Eventually, with Judaism, study would become a religious experience higher than even prayer. Jews would be educated when most of Europe was sunk in illiteracy. It was through study that Jews created a new and still-compelling form of human dignity and equality, and it was made possible through the birth of the alphabet. That is how Jews became ‘a kingdom of priests.’” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation

Commentary #3: “Rather than rejecting such a pivotal idea [as chosenness], we would do well to try to understand it in a way that is consistent with both the divinity of all humanity, and of the uniqueness of the Jews. Viewed in that light, we must quickly echo the words of the Bible that the ‘chosenness’ of the Jews is consistent with the assertion that God loves and cares for each human being. We are all precious. But 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 is a sentence fragment. It is grammatically and theologically incomplete.” – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

Late-Inning Questions: Levenson sees chosenness as a religious designation only. Rabbi Sacks believes that devotion to education through the generations has enabled Jews to become a holy nation. And Rabbi Artson points out that chosenness is a useless idea without deciding what we are chosen for.

Of the opinions expressed above, which one comes closest to your concept of being chosen by God? Is being a chosen nation a source of pride? What is your response to Jews who reject the notion that we are chosen? How can being chosen allow us to work positively with the nations of the world? How can a misinterpretation of chosenness work against us?

On Deck at Emanu-El: This January has been one of the busiest months for our synagogue in a long time. The Gun Sense SC Friday night service at KKBE takes place, at 8:00PM at the Temple. Please join us to stand up for reasonable and logical gun-safety measures. Tomorrow morning, our Sisterhood takes the spotlight beginning at Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM, followed by a wholly inclusive Sisterhood Shabbat service at 9:30AM, including the Hagigat Shabbat ceremony for our fifth-graders and honoring our beloved Sally Fischbein. The weekend closes out with …

The Big Inning at the End: Over the years, I acquired more than 10,000 baseball cards, in addition to numerous football, basketball, and hockey cards. In less than 10 days, I’m giving almost all of them away. I’ve donated or committed to donating numerous cards to kids who have requested them over Facebook; the remaining cards (still several thousand, at least) will be one of the prizes at Emanu-El’s Religious School Bingo event on Sunday, January 31st. Come and buy a card and dauber, then stay and play. You just might wind up with a nice collection of sports memorabilia.

Shabbat Shalom!