Parashat Yitro / פרשת יתרו
Torah Portion: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5-6
Shortly before God delivers to Israel the Ten Commandments in this week’s reading, God instructs Moses to remind the People that observance of the forthcoming commandments constitutes Israel’s side of the covenant between God and Israel. As long as Israel is faithful to God as demonstrated by their adherence to the mitzvot, God will be faithful to Israel (Exodus 19:5), and God will choose Israel as God’s “treasured possession.” Such is the relationship between God and “his treasured people.”
As a Reconstructionist, I am inspired by the idea that observance of mitzvot brings us closer to God’s presence. At the same time, though, I struggle with the idea that such observance makes us God’s treasured or chosen people. Apart from the fact that too many Jews today don’t live their lives with any consciousness of the Covenant, I struggle because I don’t conceive of God as a supernatural being who either commands or chooses. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in God. I just don’t think of God in the highly anthropomorphic way that our biblical ancestors did or that many of my contemporaries still do.
For me, God is the power within the universe that makes for goodness, compassion, and beauty, all those things that speak to our better nature and evoke awe and wonderment. God is within nature, not outside and above it. When we pray “to God,” we seek to become aware of that aspect of reality that is God’s “presence.” Through prayer, study and performance of acts of loving kindness and other mitzvot, we align ourselves with that Presence.
So, then, what can it mean for me to say Israel is God’s “chosen people”? Believe it or not, this is not a new question. Our sages asked the same question nearly two thousand years ago and came up with a stunning midrash (Sifre to Deuteronomy 33:2):
Before God gave the Torah to Israel, God offered it to all the nations of the world. Each nation asked, “What’s written in it?” When God cited commandment after commandment, each nation in turn claimed that violation of this or that commandment was the very essence of its culture. Therefore, each and every nation declined God’s offer of Torah. When it came Israel’s turn, however, Israel asked no questions. “We will do and obey,” the people said. Thus did Israel receive the Torah.
What the rabbis teach us is that rather than God choosing Israel, Israel chose God! The Jewish people are “the choosing” people. What an insight! It means that we have accepted upon ourselves the mantel of being “a light unto the nations,” an exemplar of God’s faithful. Believing that they alone were doing God’s bidding, it’s no wonder our ancestors envisioned themselves as God’s treasured nation.
To say that Israel is the “choosing nation” is not to deny the Truth of Torah. It is, rather, to interpret our sacred texts in a way that empowers us to fulfill the mission we’ve chosen for ourselves to make God’s presence manifest in our world. Anyone can choose to join the Jewish people on our path of Torah, but they may also choose another path toward the same ends of increasing goodness, compassion and beauty.
Sadly, all around us we see people and nations whose path is directed not toward Godliness but toward a dark void. They may see the darkness they wrought as fulfilling God’s will, but they delude themselves. There is no goodness, compassion and beauty in terror and destruction, only misery, despair and suffering.
For the sake of all those innocents caught in a vortex of darkness, I pray their nations, soon find a path toward increasing — not diminishing — God’s presence in the world. May those nations one day come to be known as “choosing people,” too, and seek the Godly path toward goodness, compassion and beauty.