Light from the Sidra

Va’etchanan (‘And I pleaded’) 20th August. 2016. 16th Av 5776

Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11. Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1–26.

Chosen for what?

Refer to the Jews as ‘the Chosen People’ and many non-Jews get hot under the collar. Who are the Jews to consider themselves ‘chosen’? What incredible arrogance to claim that they, of all nations, are the apple of the eye of the creator of the universe! But many Jewish people are also uncomfortable with the label. I’ve found that if you want to make a Jewish person angry – I mean really angry – remind them that they are ‘the Chosen People.’

‘As Jews’, said the late Art Katz, ‘one thing that makes our sprits grate is being identified with the term “chosen”. It is something like the involuntary shudder that comes with the squeal of chalk on a blackboard. After all, what has chosen ever meant to us but trouble?’

Michael Brown, a contemporary Messianic Jew and Jewish scholar, relates, ‘As a boy I heard that as Jews we were the “chosen people”, but I never heard exactly what we were chosen for.’

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the principle character Rev Tevye complains to the Almighty, ‘We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?’

The Jewish people didn’t designate themselves the chosen people; God did. Israel is holy – set apart (literally) – from the nations: ‘For you are a holy people to HASHEM your God, (it is) you that HASHEM your God chose for him as a treasured people from among all peoples that are upon the face of the soil’ (Deut 7:6).

According to Deuteronomy 7:7-8, HASHEM didn’t choose the Jewish people because they possessed any endearing quality or because he saw future potential in them. He chose Israel because of the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and had made certain promises to the patriarchs and their descendants which were linked to his covenant. Israel was not the greatest nation on earth but they were chosen to be great. They were not the most numerous nation but God had promised the patriarch Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore. They were not the most holy people in a moral or ethical sense but they were called to be holy and righteous.

There was no way, either, that they were chosen because of the merits of their fathers, as certain medieval rabbis taught. God loved Israel because he had sworn an oath to their fathers.

But with privilege comes responsibility. Israel was chosen for a purpose. They were chosen to show the other nations how to live. By living according to God’s commandments and statutes, Israel would be a light to the nations who were in darkness.

See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances as HASHEM, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’ And which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it, as HASHEM, our God, whenever we call to him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day? (Deut 4:5-8).

True holiness is attractive. By observing the Torah, Israel would show the world how to live; how to live as God intended mankind to live; how to follow the Maker’s instructions. But to refuse to live according to Torah or to fail to keep HASHEM’s commandments carried penalties.

The calling of Israel was a call to reflect the holy character of God to the nations that were ignorant of him. The ‘Ten Words’ of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, which we refer to as the Ten Commandments, are not arbitrary stipulations; they reflect the beautiful, holy character of HASHEM, the Creator of the universe.

It might sound ludicrous to say that HASHEM doesn’t have any other gods but himself, but put yourself in the place of the Hebrews who came out of Egypt. In the house of bondage there were dozens of deities; some major, some minor. HASHEM recognised none of them. If Osiris or Horus or Set truly existed and were greater than HASHEM, he would have to bow down to them. But as the plagues of Egypt demonstrated, the gods of Egypt were figments of the imagination. HASHEM is the only true God, therefore he is true to himself.

HASHEM does not take his own name in vain; when he swears an oath, he swears by his own name because there is no name greater than his own.

After he created the world, he kept Shabbat and gave to man, whom he created in his image, the blessing of a day of rest.

When I was an atheist, I asked a friend who was also an atheist why he didn’t believe in God. ‘Because he’s a murderer!’ he said. I didn’t understand what he meant then and I don’t understand what he meant now. The God of Israel does not murder. He always acts justly.

The prohibition against adultery is a command to be faithful and to keep covenant (because whatever else marriage is, it’s a covenant) and the God of Israel, despite the unfaithfulness of Israel his bride, remains faithful to his covenant with Abraham.

HASHEM does not steal from us or demand what doesn’t belong to him by right. He doesn’t bear false witness against us and he never covets anything that belongs to us.

Just imagine what the world would be like if Israel had lived up to God’s required standard. Imagine all the world living according to the ‘Ten Words’! (I apologise if I sound like John Lennon but this imaginary picture is no warm, fuzzy Neverland. It’s a picture of how God planned the world to be and how it could have been if Israel had been true to the covenant.) Had Israel been faithful, she would have influenced the rest of us for good. Instead, the nations have influenced Israel. But God has not given up on his chosen people and although he punishes them, the Haftarah calls on whoever hears to comfort Israel with the Messianic Good News that her iniquities have been paid for and pardoned by the Messiah.

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