A Chosen Nation
Ki Tavo, 5776
The great Shai Agnon tells us in his classic work, Yamim Noraim (p. 38), that when it comes the time of year to recite Selichot prayers, the gabbai of the town goes to every house in the city in the middle of the night and knocks three times on the door and shouts out: “Am Kadosh, Holy nation of Israel awaken, arise now to serve our Creator.”
Am Kadosh, holy nation. It is a beautiful phrase.
Or is it?
It could be said in a beautiful and innocuous fashion. But imagine if it is said in a tone of triumphialism—i.e. we are the Am kadosh and everyone else is lower than us. Is it still a beautiful phrase when said in that manner?
This week’s portion calls the Jewish people an am kadosh, a holy nation, as in “you will be placed above (elyon) all the other nations…lehiyot am kadosh” (26:19). It is in the context of God making a covenant with the Jewish people and calling us an am segulah, the chosen nation (26:18).
I was raised by some of my teachers to believe that chosenness equals superior. Hashem chose us to be better. Our way of life is the right way and the only true way.
But I don’t accept that approach.
First, it doesn’t ring entirely true to my own eyes. I see many other beautiful faiths and cultures around me and, at the same time, I see some of the imperfections in our own culture.
Second, taking this approach to am segula creates a feeling of superiority, which is not a proper spiritual feeling. Further, it breeds resentment from others, and at the same time causes some of us not to respect other people.
Finally, and most importantly, it does not ring true to the core of our faith. True our faith is filled with our particularistic responsibilities, but it is a particularism enveloped by a universalism.
We are on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Of all the holidays we celebrate, Rosh Hashanah is perhaps the most universalistic. It celebrates the recognition that Gd is the Gd of the entire universe.
As part of our unique liturgy for Rosh Hashanah we add the malchiyot section to mussaf. Malchiyot discusses that all the world will recognize Gd as King of the Universe. “Ve-haytah la-Hashem Hameluchah, and the Kingdom will be for Hashem.” His reign will be al ko lyoshvei tevel, over all the inhabitants of the earth. The messianic era will be an era where the entire world recognizes that we are all in this together. It will be a time of universalism, not particularism. That is the basic message of malchiyot on Rosh Hashanah.
But we don’t have to wait till Rosh Hashanah to see this message.
The immediate commandment after the Torah tells us that we are an am segulah contains this powerful message of universalism.
Right after we are called an am segulah, the Torah commands us that on the day we cross the Jordan River into the land of Canaan we should set up large stones and plaster them over. We are commanded to write the entire Torah on these stones, in a manner that is very clear, ba-er heitev (27-17).
The Talmud tells us that ba-er haitev means that the Torah should be written on these stones in 70 languages (Sotah, 32a).
Furthermore the Talmud tells us that we were commanded to write the Torah on stones and establish these large stones in three different places. One spot was on the other side of the Jordan River. This was done by Moshe himself. A second place was in the middle of the Jordan River. This was done by Joshua on the day of the river crossing. Some argue that these stones were dismantled and reestablished at Mount Eival. And the third place was in Gilgal, after the Jewish people built an altar on Mount Eival (Sotah, 35b).
The Iyun Yaakov (1661-1733) explains that the reason the Torah was written on stones and established in three different places was so that the nations of the world would be able to study and understand the Torah. Therefore the Torah was established on stones in three different geographical areas—the other side of the Jordan, Judea, and the Galil.
This explains the Meiri, is also the reason why the Torah was written in seventy languages. So that the nations of the world would all understand and come to love the Torah.
Since we are talking about these stones, there is one more point that it is relevant to raise:
The Talmud asks the question:
Keitzad katvu yisrael et ha-torah? How did the Jewish people write the Torah on these stones?
So the Talmud records the following debate:
R. Yehudah says that first the Torah was written down on the stones and then the stones were covered over with plaster.
R. Shimon responds: If that is the case that the Torah on the stones was immediately covered with plaster then, “heikh lamdu umot shel oto hazeman torah, how were the nations of the world able to learn the Torah”?
R. Yehuda has an answer for that. Binah yeteirah natan bahem, Hashem gave the nations of the world “extra understanding.” This binah yeteirah enabled them to remove the plaster on the stones without damaging the stones or the text. They then copied the Torah down and sent it to their own nations (Sotah, 35b).
Ben Yehoyada explains that the binyah yeteirah was not only in removing the plaster, but in figuring out that there was something underneath the plaster in the first place.
The nations of the world saw a rock covered with plaster and knew that something very special was written under the plaster. They then used their great skill to uncover the plaster and discover the Torah written in 70 languages.
And the purpose of all this was so that the nations of the world would also be given the opportunity to follow the ways of the Torah.
The Talmud tells us that the nations sinned and did not keep the Torah. But so did the Jewish people. The story of the prophets is a story of people sinning again and again. It is also unfortunately the history of humanity.
So we see that right after the Torah calls the people an am segulah, we are told that the Torah is not just for the Jewish people, but it is for everyone to learn. The Torah carries with it a universal message of all men and women are created in the image of God; a message of loving our neighbors; a message of always striving for holiness. These are universalistic messages that don’t dovetail neatly with a particularistic message.
What about the fact that the Torah also contains passages about the nations of the world that are extremely harsh? Passages of destruction and calls to war must be understood as a call to annihilate evil around us, but not to annihilate or show any disrespect at all to the good nations of the world.
This is the approach of virtually all rabbinic scholars.
In parashat Ki Tetzei we read of the commandment to return a lost object to its rightful owner. The Torah states that we must act in this manner, “le-khol aveidat akhikhah, to all the lost objects of your brother” (Devarim 22:3).
The Talmud interprets this phrase to mean that the obligation to return a lost object does not apply universally. Says the Talmud, “le-akhikha attah machzir, ve-i-atah machzir le-kenani, to your brother you must return a lost object, but you do not return a lost object to a Cananite” (Bava Kamma, 113b).
At first glance, the teaching of the Talmud seems to be a gross limitation on universalism. It seems to be promoting an attitude of, “lets treat our fellow Jews by a separate law than everyone else and only return a lost object to a Jew.”
But here is what R. Boruch Epstein (Lithuania, 1860-1941) writes in his classic work Torah Temimah regarding this talmudic statement:
Regarding the directive not to return the lost object to a Cananite: “All of the commentators (kol hamefarshim) write that this statement only applies to the immoral idolaters, bur regarding all the other nations, the law with respect to them is the same as the Jewish people for all matters. And all of the commentators taught this on the basis of logic alone and without a source. But in my opinion there is a source based upon Bava Kamma (38a)…where it states that God saw that the nations of the world were not keeping the seven Noahide laws so He arose and released their money to the Jewish people… And the matter of the seven laws is known—ripping the limbs off of a living animal, basic courts of law, murder…. And think about it, people who act this way, and don’t keep the laws and indeed, behave in an opposite manner, are destroying the world and destroying society and destroying our countries. But those who do keep the seven laws, and this is the majority of the nations of the world, without any doubt have exactly the same laws as the Jewish people.” (Torah Temimah, 22:3:22.)
Returning to the concept of am segulah, it clearly does not mean we are better. It does not mean we have more privileges over others.
So what does it mean?
It means that from our own perspective we need to feel that we are chosen by God for a special and unique task.
We need to feel chosen in order to feel empowered. And we need to feel empowered in order to better the world.
When we say we are an am segulah, it is not intended to be descriptive but rather, inspirational. The Torah is telling us that we are put here on this earth for a reason. We have the teachings of the Torah to guide us. We are a holy nation. A nation that is special. We are a treasure to the world. Now we need to act that way and better the world. And improve the world.
When the Torah tells us that we are “elyon,” that means we are a spiritual nation, charged with a spiritual task.
And when the Torah tells us that we have a unique and special relationship with God, that doesn’t mean that other nations don’t have a unique and special relationship with Hashem.
The Torah is the story of the world from the perspective of the Jewish people’s relationship with God. Of course from that perspective we must look at ourselves as chosen for a special mission. But God forbid, we should never make the mistake of turning this inspirational message into a message of exclusivity and superiority.
As this is true for us as a nation, so too, it is true for us as individuals. We must always view ourselves as chosen by God to complete a unique mission on this earth. We are all given special talents to help us on this path. But our special talents do not make us better than anyone else. It makes us unique and inspires us to be better.
That is what am segulah means to me. It means we are a unique nation; a nation that is a treasure; and a nation that must feel inspired to better the world.
We sometimes forget that we were created for a reason. We forget that we are supposed to better the world. We forget that our lives must be mission driven.
But Rosh Hashanah comes to remind us of this message. Rosh Hashanah arrives to remind us that we are here to serve our Creator, King of the Universe. And the intense beginning of that period starts tonight with Selichot prayers, when we say:
Shomeah Tefillah. Adekhah kol basar Yavou. Yavo kol basar kehistachavot lifanekhah.
Let all flesh of the universe come before You and bow down to the One who hears our prayers.
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