(While Rabbi Goldstein is out on vacation, we’re digging into the archives. This post on parasha Devarim was originally published August 19, 2016)
One of the most widely known aspects of the Jewish tradition, by Jews and non-Jews alike, also happens to be, in my opinion, one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of the Jewish tradition – that the Jews are the “Chosen People.”
This concept is dervied from, among other places in Torah, this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Va’et-hanan – where we read:
“Since you are a distinct people (am kadosh) for Hashem your God, it is you which Hashem your God chose for God’s self to be a treasured people (am segulah) from all of the peoples which are on the face of the ground. Your are not more numerous than any of the peoples, Hashem has become bound up with you and chose you because you the smallest of all of the peoples.” (Deut. 7:6-7)
So what is it that the Jews are “chosen” for? What does it mean to be “treasured” and “bound up” with God? And why does it matter that we are “not more numerous,” and according to the Torah “the smallest of all of the peoples,”?
The Torah doesn’t give us the reason at all, in fact, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, 13th century Spain and Israel) notes explicitly, “Moshe did not mention the reason but only the being chosen.” He goes on to say, “For the one chosen to be a beloved is the one who knows how to bear with the one who loves no matter what happens on because of that fact.” Interesting – so Ramban posits that being chosen is not as much a gift as it is an obligation, an obligation to love God no matter what. Very fitting, then, that this should come in this week’s Torah portion which also contains the first paragraph of the Shema which, of course, begins, “You should love Hashem your God with all of your heart, all of your soul and all of your might. And these words which I command you today will be upon your heart.” (Deut. 6:5-6). What words? Tradition tells us that “these words” is literal, and it is referring to the words of the Shema itself, which is why we put them on our doorposts and in our tefillin, as the Shema itself suggests. However, contextually, it is quite clear that the Torah is referring not to the words of the Shema when it mentions “these words,” but the words which precede it, namely the Ten Commandments. Obligation, indeed! But this still doesn’t answer the question what, precisely, the Jewish people are chosen for…
Ramban proposes that it means “you do not have a captain, a ruler or an officer from all of the transcendent messengers (i.e., angels), rather you are a treasure of God directly under God’s control. Therefore do not make the mistake of worshiping the gods of the (other) peoples.” Contextually, this makes sense. What is the obligation of “these words” which are referenced in the Shema? The Ten Commandments, and most notably, the first two commandments which establish that God is our own one and only. So why mention that the Jewish people are “smallest of all the peoples”?
Ramban explains, “It would have made more sense for the largest nation (to be chosen by God)…’but you are the smallest,’ and despite this God ‘has become bound up with you and chose you.'”
So what is the meaning, according to Ramban, of being the “Chosen People”? What are we chosen for? To love God despite what happens to us, and how do we show our love of God? By observing “these words” with all of our heart, soul and might. Which words? The words of the Ten Commandments, which themselves are representative of all of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. This is why the Torah goes on to connect this passage of being chosen to reiterating (for the umpteenth time) that the Jewish people are not to engage in idolatry.
Idolatry is, ultimately, adultery against God. This is why the relationship between the Ten Commandments, the Shema and this passage is so important – we commit to God precisely because God is One, and God commits to us because of the commitment we have to honor and acknowledge God’s Oneness by seeking to become One with God, and we – the Jewish people – are chosen to become One with the One through observing Torah.