God’s “Chosen People” (Exodus 19:3-6)
By Joel Cohen
When the Israelites arrived at Sinai, Moses ascended to God who told him to tell the Israelites that if they heed God and observe His commandments, they shall be His “Chosen People” – a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.
Why were the Israelites “chosen”? Clearly, they had done nothing in particular to have merited a “chosen” status aside from Abraham accepting a Montheistic God. If the Israelites were chosen on the merit of Abraham, why wasn’t the other Abrahamic line, that is, the Children of Ishmael, also considered chosen? We have nothing to suggest that Ishmael didn’t believe in, didn’t worship, a Monotheistic God just as did his father.
Indeed, the entire concept of being “chosen” seems odd. Even today, Jews consider themselves, argue that they are, “chosen” by God. Surprising. Since the beginning of time, God has placed billions of people onto the earth, but only a small percentage of them have been Jews. Are the non-Jews simply along for the ride? Yes, God does say that the Israelites will be “chosen” only if they follow His commandments — but such a small percentage in fact do.
• Maybe the Torah’s comment about Israel’s “chosen” status is actually a jingoistic (or nationalistic) claim to a preferred status among the Nations of the World — in the same way that Christians and Muslims, respectively, claim that their belief is the only true “Way”?
• When the Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf, did they become unchosen? And if not, why not? Could there have been a more extreme defiance of His Law?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
The promise that God made to the Jews to be His “chosen people” has created much controversy throughout the ages. Joel—your questions are valid. Why the Jews? And, the Golden Calf wasn’t the only time that we should have forfeited our “chosen” status.
The first question that must be addressed is what it means to be “chosen”. Rabbi Judah ha-Levi, the great Spanish Jewish philosopher who wrote the Kuzari, argued that the Jews are inherently better than other people of the world. This belief forced him to argue that anyone who converts to Judaism was in some fashion present at Mt. Sinai so that they too acquired the special “chosen” status. According to this explanation, the “chosen” status explains God’s special relationship with the Jewish people. We are inherently different than everyone else. This special quality is part of our very being and cannot be forfeited, even if we sin.
However, many medieval Jewish philosophers and commentators disagreed with the Kuzari and argued that “chosen” is a status that we earned and that we continue to earn. According to this explanation, there is nothing inherently different between the Jew and the Gentile. However, God gave us the opportunity to be special by observing the ritual and ethical commands of the Torah. According to this explanation, “chosen” is not an inherent quality—it is a challenge to each Jew to live a life that merits the title “chosen”. Why then, according to these scholars, did God not take away our status when we sinned? That question is answered at the end of the Book of Shemot after the sin of the Golden Calf. One would imagine that Moshe was concerned at that moment that the Jews, even if not annihilated, would lose their status of “chosen”. Therefore, Moshe asks God to remember His relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If we don’t deserve the special status, maintain that “chosen” status for the sake of those righteous people who came before us. That is a comforting guarantee for a challenge that confronts each Jew every day.
The reference in this weeks Pasha and your question, to priests, does not refer to the Kohanim, priests who are descendants of Aaron the High Priest, Rather, the reference here is to the “priestly function”.
The priest’s function is to “bring” G–d to the people, and to elevate the people to be nearer to G-d. The purpose of the Jews is to bring G–d to the world and the world closer to G–d. In our association with the outside world every one of us – man or woman – must fulfill priestly functions. The juxtaposition of a “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” indicates that through being holy and dedicated to Torah and mitzvot in our private lives we can be successful ambassadors to the outside world. This “priestly function” was termed by the prophet Isaiah as a “light to the nations”.
This sense of responsibility is also the true meaning of being chosen. Each one of us was chosen at the Giving of the Torah described in this weeks Torah reading. The Sages tell us all Jewish souls which would ever be born were present, including all future proselytes to Judaism.
Joel it is this responsibility to imbue our surroundings with spirituality that separates us as a different people, arguably this is the first iteration of Global Spiritual Social Responsibility.
Being chosen in your question connotes a certain level of arrogance, rather when we speak about being G-ds spiritual choice, the way to achieve that, is specifically through humility. In addition this ability is not ethnocentric it is available to anyone that subscribes to Judaism whether by birth or by choice. In addition in Judaism we are not fond of proselytizing rather The Torah gives everyone the ability to make their mark in their own way, eg the 7 Noahide Laws, living a just and spiritual existance.
This too is possibly the reason that we are not “unchosen” by sin for the essence of every single Jewish soul is constantly connected to G-d and therefore unencumbered by the actions that can be repaired through Teshuva, return.
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