Eleven years ago, an interesting confluence of events led to my musing for parashat Vayeishev. The timing this year is similar.
Hanukah was fast approaching, a time when we are called upon to publicly assert our Judaism with the display of our hanukiyot. Back in 2004, I was still editing Bim Bam, a Jewish teen e-zine published by Torah Aura Productions. That week 11 years ago, I chose some interesting content. One was an opinion piece that suggests that the American Jewish community is wasting all this effort and energy getting all worked up about Xmas, and blaming it for the rising tide of assimilation. The author suggested that we need to stop blaming outside factors for our problems–if Jews aren’t being drawn to Jewish things it’s because we, as Jews, aren’t doing what’s needed to draw them in.
The second was a series of articles from a variety of perspectives that asked the reader to consider the standard to which Israel must hold itself to be a “Jewish” state-is Israel being “all it can be?” That same year I was teaching and Intro to Judaism course for the regional office of the URJ, and on a fairly regular basis, the question of “chosen-ness” came up. This was no less true at the synagogues where I worked as a religious school administrator or teacher, and it is no less true today at the various places where I teach, tutor, an work.
There is, in general, a certain discomfort, even distaste among many Jews (though I would have to admit that in my experience it is primarily among liberal Jews) for this whole concept of “chosen-ness.” I’m fond of pointing out in response that our “chosen-ness” is, as Teyve puts it “no great honor, either.”
Often, I hear people state, and I admit to being guilty of it myself, that Torah doesn’t really say that the choice is exclusive-leaving room for G”d to make other choices and other covenants. I’ve always felt a little like I was “pushing the envelope” by making such a claim, nevertheless I felt that, for the sake of both Jewish identity, interfaith harmony, and accepting the reality of a multiplicity of religious traditions, I needed to be pro-active in taking away our internal discomfort with being chosen people, and at the same time not fueling the fire of those who would use that against us.
“Chosen doesn’t mean better,” I often said. “Chosen doesn’t mean exclusive, either.” Yet I sought balance. I, for one, am fully comfortable with the words of the Aleinu, and don’t care for some liberal congregations that opt to eliminate
שֶׁלֹּא עָשָֽׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת, וְלֹא שָׂמָֽנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה
“shelo asanu k’goyei ha-aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishpakhot ha-adamah.”
(did not make us like the (other) nations of the lands, and did not place us amongst all the families of the earth.)
So I thought I had found my comfort with “chosen-ness.” Then I bumped into these words in the Haftarah reading for Vayeishev, from Amos 3:i2
רַק אֶתְכֶם יָדַעְתִּי מִכֹּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָֽאֲדָמָה עַל־כֵּן אֶפְקֹד עֲלֵיכֶם אֵת כָּל־עֲוֹנֹֽתֵיכֶֽם
“Rak etkhem yadati mikol mishpakhot ha-adamah, al-kein efkod aleichem et kol-avonoteikhem.”
Only you have I known from all the families of the earth; therefore I will draw near to (i.e. give attention to) your iniquities. (That’s my translation. JPS says “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth-That is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.”)
(Far be it from me to question such august personages as the JPS’s translation committee, but I don’t see where they derive “singled out” from “yadati,” I have known. So I can dispute the “singled out” part. But the “rak etkhem” the “only you [plural]” is harder to dismiss.)
Oh sure, I can play all sorts of twists and turns with the Hebrew and its meaning, as well as the context, and still find both support for chosen-ness while not flaunting it or lording it over others. I could even toy with the plurality of the statement “rak etkhem.” Who is to say that the plural you isn’t intended to refer to groups other than our ancestors? Then again, who is to say that it is not intended to say exactly that? You [plural] meaning the Jewish people. Remember, the covenant was made with those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day (generally interpreted to mean future generations.) Nevertheless, part of me wants desperately to play down the exclusivity. Call it apologetics, if you must. Perhaps, sometimes, apologetics can serve a higher cause, it if helps bring peace and understanding between disparate peoples?
Then there’s that second half to the verse. It fully endorses the idea that “chosen-ness” isn’t always such a blessing. It is precisely because G”d has chosen us that we will have to account for our actions. To be a Jew means direct accountability to G”d for our actions (or failures to act.) To be a Jewish state, Israel does have to live up to high expectations.
There is a hint of the old bad parenting adage of “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” and given G”d’s track record in making bad parenting mistakes, it’s easy to perceive it that way. It’s because I love you so much that I must call you to account (or, in other words, punish you.) (Yes, the difference is that parents don’t get to choose their children, whereas G”d did get to choose us. Does that fact let parents or G”d off the hook more? I wonder.)
All of this still doesn’t seem to help solve the Xmas question–do we stubbornly stand against America’s commercial Xmas (and Hanukah) or do we accept it (them) for the largely secular things they have become, hiding only deep within them their true meanings, and expend our energies at getting our own house in order? Which of these actions (or failures to act) will G”d call us to account for? Which is the greater sin – accepting a little bit of the realities of modern life, or failing to figure out why it is that Jews just don’t seem to be attracted to Judaism anymore? Or are we failing in both areas, and are to be called account for this double failure?
Of course this leads us to the whole question of what sins or iniquities are. Some things are rather well-defined for us in the Torah. Others are somewhat less defined but have been given some dimension through the oral Torah (or, if you prefer, the work of the rabbis and sages.) Some are only inferred, and some seem to just not be there but made up of whole cloth somewhere along the line of our history.
So look at all these dilemmas we are left with. (Sure seems to knock the “December Dilemma” off the top of the attention ladder. Calling it the “December opportunity” is no different. Either way, we’re making it (the proximity of Hanukah and Xmas) a focus–and perhaps we do need to be more focused on what it is we don’t seem to be able to do. On the other hand…how can we ignore the realities that we face each day about Xmas and Hanukah?
Things have changed somewhat in the ensuing 11 years since I first wrote some of these words. Whether those changes are for the better or worse is a bit unclear in my mind. I daresay that “chosen-ness” is even more of a discomforting issue for Jews today than it was over a decade ago. Our society is increasingly universalistic in its values. Holiday celebrations and recognition these days tend to be far more inclusive, recognizing Xmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanza, and more. Things have become so inclusive, that now, over an above the “Xmas Dilemma” we have what some Xtians perceive as a “war on Xmas.” The pendulum has swung.
Is chosen-ness something that we might have to continue to “play down?” Is that necessarily a good thing? Might a time come when we can proudly proclaim our chosen-ness without being accused of taking a “holier than Thou” position? Can we, as a society, ever learn to live with the concept of multiple chosen-ness, or is the only solution to be a society where no one group considers themselves chosen? Can chosen-ness ever be perceived as far by the non-chosen? Are we truly better off in a world where no one feels chosen?
Not so sure about that. Chosen-ness isn’t such a special thing. What does it mean to be chosen? Well, if we weren’t among G”d’s chosen people, we might not have to wrestle with so many things all the time. Still, as the song goes “…I wouldn’t trade it for a pot of gold.” Let’s go on with the show!
©2015 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Vayeishev 5775 – Seriously…Who Was That Guy?
Vayeishev 5773 – K’tonet Passim
Vayeishev 5772 – The Ram’s Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T’vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 – Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 – In Gd’s Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What’s Worth Looking After