Why the World Needs Chosen People By Lauren Shaps
There seems to be a never-ending plague of anti-Semitism that can’t be attributed to the Arab-Israeli conflict alone. Anti-Semitism came long before the State of Israel and exists in places where there are no Jews. It leads to Israel, Israelis and Jews in general being held to a standard that doesn’t exist for any other people or nation. One wonders where this totally irrational hatred comes from. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin asked this question many years ago in their book Why The Jews?
The rabbis of the Talmud had an interesting answer to that question. They suggested that the origins of anti-Semitism are found in this week’s parsha, Parashat Yitro, where we read about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The Talmud tells us that “Rav Chisda and Rabbah the son of Rav Huna both said: Why is it called ‘Sinai?’ (They answered,) because it is the mountain from which hatred (Hebrew: sinah) came down to the nations of the world” (Talmud Shabbat 89a).
In a clever play on words, the rabbis pointed out that the seeds of hatred and jealousy were inherent in G-d’s choosing us to receive the Torah. In fact, many Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of being called “the Chosen People,” seeing it as the source of virulent hatred that continues to this very day.
So, what does it mean to be the Chosen People? If the rabbis connected sinah (hatred) to Sinai, then we need to look more closely at this week’s parasha in order to understand.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares an interesting perspective on two stories in this parsha. The first tells of Moses seeking guidance from his father-in-law, Yitro, who advises him to delegate leadership to others who can share the burden and responsibility of leading the Jewish people. Yitro is essentially the first executive coach.
Then we read of the Jewish people gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The Torah tells us how they experienced divine revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments. These commandments form not only the basis for the moral and ethical code of the Jewish people, but have been adopted by all Christians and others as well.
Why did Moses’s lesson in governance come about through his father-in-law Yitro, who was not yet Jewish? The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, Morocco, Israel 1696-1743) explains that G-d “wanted to show the Israelites that there are, among the nations of the world, great masters of understanding and intellect” (as quoted by Rabbi Sacks).
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746, Italy, Holland), in his book Derech HaShem (The Way of G-d), tells us that one can come to appreciate G-d and the wondrous world He created through the study of philosophy, physics, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences. (Part 1, 1:2)
In case we think the sciences and math will bring perfection to the world, the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai teaches us that for the world to function properly, it needs more than information. It needs a Torah with guidelines for behavior, values that shape us, wisdom for living, expectations to reach for and even lines not to cross. And, the world needs a people chosen to receive that Torah, who will immerse themselves in it and bring its wisdom and values into the world. We, the people chosen to be the people of the book, have a unique and critically important mission. Our job is to bring those lessons to life in order to create just and compassionate societies, balanced between rules and expectations and flexibility, caring and mercy.
This unique mission has differentiated us from all other nations. It has shaped our destiny. Were it not for the Torah, the fledgling nation that exited Egypt would certainly have blended into the many Middle Eastern tribes, lost forever. Instead, for more than 3,500 years, we have remained unique and often hated. We as a nation have retained our sense of mission, excelled in all aspects of life and made a contribution far beyond our percentage of the world population. We have, without a doubt, changed the world for the better.
Every time anti-Semitism raises its ugly head, we are reminded that, like it or not, we have been chosen for a special mission. Not to look down our noses, G-d forbid, at others, nor to revel in our Nobel Prizes, billions earned or the success of Israel as the Start-Up Nation. Rather, we were chosen to partner with G-d in bringing values and ethics to the world, to facilitate the transformation and perfection of humanity. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Only when we live lives that show integrity, humility and compassion are we worthy of our calling as the chosen people. Our chosen-ness comes from our connection to Torah. It is both an incredible privilege and an awesome responsibility.
Lauren Shaps is a JWRP City Leader and full time adult Jewish educator. She works closely with her husband, Rabbi Zischa Shaps and they are blessed with 5 wonderful children. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.