Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
By Rabbi Paul L. Saal
In the Broadway classic “Fiddler on the Roof” the main character, Tevye, ironically entreats God, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” In his frustration, Tevye echoes 4000 years of Jewish experience. It would appear that being God’s Chosen People is not always all it is cracked up to be. Tevye’s little shtetl is continuously assailed by political violence, poverty and the unrelenting demands of modernity. But in the midst of all this, perhaps the greatest challenge to the village of Anatevka is maintaining their traditions in a world that demands conformity.
This week’s parasha contains the dramatic summit of the Exodus story, as Israel encounters the Master of the World at the base of Mt. Sinai. Here, God articulates the special bond he plans with Israel: “And now if you hearken well to me and observe my covenant, you shall be to me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for mine is the entire world” (Ex. 19:5). This statement, though, appears to contain an internal conflict, the conflict of a “chosen people.”
How can the God of the entire universe choose just one people? Shouldn’t God love everybody equally? Isn’t the concept of “chosenness” just a bit xenophobic? Many Jews today would argue that such a claim denigrates the rest of humanity.
But isn’t that claim central to the thesis of all of Torah, and isn’t it at the core of the entire Bible? This statement presents the context for the Ten Commandments and all the commandments that follow. In fact, uprooting this concept dilutes the biblical tradition and threatens to eradicate the importance of Scripture’s heroic figures.
How then can we square this circle, God as the loving Divinity of all humanity and the uniqueness and specialness of the Jewish people? To do so we must first come to terms with the assertion that God loves and cares about all humanity. Every person and people group is precious to the Creator who animates the human soul (Gen. 2:7). God’s ongoing care for every “tribe and tongue” is a testament to his ability to seriously multi-task. But if everyone is special, doesn’t it detract from the concept of personal and group exceptionalism? Not necessarily. God creates the world from the beginning in a process of havdil (distinction), giving every element of creation, both environment and inhabitants, a unique and special purpose. God creates and maintains the world by creating an economy of mutual blessing. We bless God by blessing each another and drawing energy from the others’ distinct gifts and experience. To try to conform others to our image does violence to this divine system of blessing.
So, what about Jewish chosenness? To some extent Jewish chosenness is a metaphorical sentence fragment. In the same way as it is incomplete and misleading to say I am the President without context (I am the president of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council), so it is incomplete and prideful to state that the Jewish people are chosen of God without appropriate context. What completes the concept of Jewish chosenness is the understanding that the Jewish people were chosen to embody the value and standards of Torah and to display these values to the world. By living a life centered on God’s mitzvot we choose to be chosen. We allow the covenant to live by how we choose to live! As is the case of any love relationship we can enhance or demean that relationship. The power is in our hands to live God’s choice of us as much as it is his.
The Holy One’s purpose for Israel is stated in the sentence after he announces his unique love for Israel: “You shall be to me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). If Israel is obedient to the commands and ordinances of Torah, they will image God as kings and priests, sovereigns and servants. In this respect Israel stands as the living link between God and the rest of humanity, repairing the cosmic breach that occurred with human disobedience.
At the foot of Sinai all Israel said, “Kol asher diber adonai na’aseh v’nishma, all that the Lord has said we will do and obey” (Ex. 24:7). They accepted not only the privileges of bearing his name, but also the covenantal responsibilities associated with those privileges. Likewise, as we stand before the Aron Kodesh each week it is as though we stand in continuity before Sinai and receive Torah again, saying “all that the Lord has said we will do.”
This acceptance compels us to live lives that model God’s image in the world. Sovereignty in God’s economy is not that which is grasped but rather that which is freely given, an odd dichotomy by normal reckoning. The power of God is perfected in our weakness. Through service we attain the mark of divinely gifted aristocracy, following the model of Israel’s greatest son. Yeshua abandoned the privileges of deity and did not claim or exploit his status (Phil.2:6-8). Instead he actively undertook the role of a servant. For Yeshua the incarnation in itself is a position of marginality. Far more is lost when he enters the created order than we are capable of comprehending, or that the biblical authors are able to adequately convey. But we also understand intuitively that with this “chosenness” there is more to gain than the accepted politics of power can offer. It is through his sacrifice and servanthood that Yeshua is elevated to the right hand of God.
This is true of Israel as well. We learn from both the Torah and the living Torah that we are given sovereignty to care for the created order. To care for the widow and the orphan, to feed the poor and the hungry, to provide hospitality for the stranger, to protect those who have no position or power, to care for all life forms on the planet and the environment that supports all of us. We do not have the option to claim status or to be self-protective; rather we must look out for all on whom the sun rises and sets.