Rosh Hashanah 5780
Narratives that coalesce around a single person who is the only one who can perform a critical task are ever present and ever popular.
I can’t remember the first time that I encountered this kind of “chosen one” motif. Maybe it was during the opening minutes of 1992’s Aladdin movie. After the opening song, the screen is filled with the image of the lion-like Cave of Wonders which offers an impressive warning to the two would-be treasurer hunters as they approach its entrance. In a deep voice, this ancient- and somehow sentient- cave rumbles, “Know this. Only one can enter here. One who’s worth lies far within. The diamond in the rough.”
Or maybe the first time I saw this trope was when I watched Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. At the climactic moment of the movie, an increasingly large group of huge and obviously strong men attempt to wrestle the sword from the stone, but they are unsuccessful. Then comes Arthur, a scrawny, tiny child whose arms are so small that his sleeves won’t stay rolled up. We watch as Arthur walks up to the stone, places his hand on the sword’s grip, and is immediately bathed in light. He pulls excalibur from the stone, and we hear a voice proclaim, “It’s a miracle. Ordained by heaven. This boy is our king.”
We never seem to tire of stories built around a chosen one. We love reading and watching as Frodo steps forward and offers to carry the One Ring to Mount Doom, as Buffy Summers battles with the never-ending forces of evil, as Captain Ahab claims that he alone can triumph over the the great white whale, as Katniss Everdeen inspires a nation to tear down tyrannical institutions, and as Harry Potter leads everyone from the smallest house elf to the largest centaur in an epic struggle against Voldemort and his Death Eaters.
One of the reasons that this type of story is so eternally and universally popular is that many if not most of us are captivated by the idea that someday, our normal lives could be interrupted by something mystical or magical. We love to lose ourselves in dreams of ordinary days that are interrupted when the heavens open up, bathe us in light, and a far off voice declares, “You… that’s right! I’m talking to you! You are the chosen one!”
But here’s the thing, as members of the Jewish community, we ARE the chosen ones!
The idea that the Jewish people were chosen by God is both incredibly ancient and incredibly uncomfortable for contemporary Jewish communities, especially for those of us who belong to one of the more liberal branches of modern Judaism. This discomfort is often so visceral that we shy away from discussing the idea of chosenness at all.
I know many of you here today feel this discomfort, and I want to share honestly that I do as well. But, I’m going to ask all of us to engage in a thought experiment. For the next 15 minutes or so, let’s pretend that we whole-heartedly accept that the Jewish people are the chosen people. Let’s suspend any judgement of that conclusion, and let’s open our minds enough to really consider the idea that we might be the chosen ones.
Ok. Now that we’ve accepted- even temporarily- the role of the chosen people, let’s try to answer two critical questions:
1) Why were the Jewish people chosen?
2) What are our responsibilities as the chosen people?
From the beginning of our tradition, there have been a variety of reasons offered for God’s decision to choose the Jewish people.
In Deuteronomy 7:6 we are told, “For you are a people consecrated to Adonai your God: of all the peoples on earth Adonai your God chose you to be God’s treasured people.” An 11th century commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, explains that the Hebrew word s’gulah, which I just translated as “treasured,” only appears when describing, “something beautiful, the like[s] of which can be found nowhere else.” From Deuteronomy and Ibn Ezra, we learn that to be chosen is to be considered unique and priceless.
The verses that immediately follow in Deuteronomy offer even more context and explanation. “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that Adonai set God’s heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because Adonai favored you and kept the oath made to your ancestors that Adonai freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
For the authors of Deuteronomy, it seems clear that the Israelites were chosen and treasured because of the relationships that existed between God and their ancestors. In this way, Deuteronomy reflects the larger consensus of biblical authors who believed that the Israelite people had not been chosen because they were special.
Instead, they were special because they had been chosen.
In the middle ages, as rabbis and scholars continued to wrestle with the meaning of chosenness, two divergent rationales began to solidify. In his 12th century book, Sefer Kuzari (the Book of the Kuzari), Yehuda HaLevi articulated his understanding of what it meant for the Jewish people to have been chosen when he wrote, “Bear with me a little while … [as] I show the lofty station of the people. For me it is sufficient that God chose them as [God’s] people from all nations of the world, and allowed [God’s] influence to rest on all of them, and that they nearly approached being addressed by [God]. [God’s influence] even descended on their women, among whom were prophetesses…”
I’m going to pause here to thank HaLevi for his open mindedness in including “even…[the] women,” among those who felt God’s influence. And now we continue with HaLevi’s words, “Adam was perfection itself, because no flaw could be found in a work of a wise and Almighty Creator, wrought from a substance chosen by [God], and fashioned according to [God’s] own design… The soul with which [Adam] was endowed was perfect; his intellect was the loftiest which it is possible for a human being to possess, and beyond this he was gifted with the divine power of such high rank, that it brought him into connexion with beings divine and spiritual, and enabled him, with slight reflection, to comprehend the great truths without instruction. We call him God's son, and we call all those who [followed] him also sons of God.”
HaLevi’s goes on to track this divinely gifted power through the generations that followed Adam. He is meticulously detailed as he explains that only specific people in each generation were worthy of inheriting this unique, divine spark. For HaLevi, the Jewish people’s chosenness is explained by the special divine quality which was passed, generation by generation, through our branch of humanity’s family tree. HaLevi believed that the Israelites and the Jewish people who came from them did not have to earn the distinction of being chosen.
Instead, they were chosen because they had been made to be chosen.
On the opposite end of the chosenness spectrum was Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, a 12th century Spanish scholar, who argued that the Jewish people had actually earned their position as the chosen ones.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains that Maimonides believed that chosenness was awarded based on human action: “[...Maimonides] describes Abraham as a philosopher who is ‘chosen’ only because he discovers God. Similarly the Jewish people are ‘chosen’ insofar as their acceptance of the Torah grants them a special relationship with God…. With his emphasis on human agency, Maimonides leaves open the possibility ...that non-Jews may be chosen [and that Jews may become ‘unchosen.]”
By singling out Abraham rather than Adam, Maimonides makes it clear that he rejects the idea that the Jewish people’s chosenness is not the result of something biological. Instead, he connects being chosen to Abraham, a man whose life was changed by his willingness to hear God’s call.
Rabbi Jacobs writes that for HaLevi, the Jews had been chosen because of God’s “unilateral-and seemingly arbitrary” decision. But for Maimonides, they were chosen because of their, “active decision... to initiate a relationship with God.”
Ok. Now that we have the typical Jewish answers to a simple question (i.e. multiple answers), so let’s move on to our second question. What are our responsibilities as the chosen people?
Since its founding, American Reform Judaism has been somewhat ambivalent about the idea of the Jewish people’s chosenness. Often, rather than diving deeply into the question of why or even if the Jews are chosen, generations of Reform leaders have focused on identifying the responsibilities that we have as the chosen people.
In 1885, in the movement’s first statement of principles, our leaders declared, “We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men. In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”
In 1937, when the leaders of our movement again convened to issue a platform of principles, they spoke of both the Jewish people’s unique role in history as well as their inclusive vision of human and divine partnership, “Throughout the ages it has been Israel’s mission to witness to the Divine in the face of every form of paganism and materialism. We regard it as our historic task to cooperate with all men in the establishment of the kingdom of God, of universal brotherhood, Justice, truth and peace on earth. This is our Messianic goal.”
The 1937 platform concluded with the following statement, “These timeless aims and ideals of our faith we present anew to a confused and troubled world. We call upon our fellow Jews to rededicate themselves to [these goals], and, in harmony with all men, hopefully and courageously to continue Israel’s eternal quest after God and [God’s] kingdom.”
The most recent of our movement’s platforms was published in 1999 and is the most explicit in invoking the idea that the Jewish people have special destiny, “We affirm that the Jewish people is bound to God by an eternal covenant as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption. We are Israel, a people aspiring to holiness, singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God’s presence. We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and place.”
Importantly, the 1999 platform’s language, which directly speaks to the idea of the Jewish people’s status as God’s chosen ones, does not devolve into a chauvinistic or exclusionary vision of Jewish life. On the contrary, the following appears directly after the previous statement, “We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all regardless of their sexual orientation, to those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home.”
A commentary on the 1999 platform explains the authors’ intent behind these two statements, “At Sinai God called us a segulah mikol ha-amim (Exodus 19:5) , a treasure from among all the peoples, and when we are called to the Torah or say Kiddush we praise God asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim, ‘who has chosen us from all people.’ The Reform Movement has historically ascribed to the belief that Israel is a chosen people–not in the sense of being better than other peoples, but in the sense indicated here–chosen for a specific mission, to be a witness to the reality and oneness of God… The Reform Movement has long believed that our dispersion throughout the world was a way to pursue ‘the mission of Israel’ more effectively by modeling the truth of our calling to the nations among whom we lived. But ‘chosenness’ need not imply exclusivity: to say that the People Israel has been chosen to bear witness to the reality and teachings of God does not deny that God may well have chosen other peoples for other sorts of missions in the world.”
For more than one hundred and thirty years, the Reform Movement has taught that the reasons why the Jewish people were chosen are far less important than the responsibilities that we have as the chosen people. Generations of Reform leaders have pushed us to stop wondering “why” or even “if” and to start working to make the world more fair, more just, and more holy.
Here’s what I’ve decided:
Being chosen doesn’t mean that we’re better. It means that we’re responsible.
I don’t know if God chose us, and if She did, I don’t know why. But that’s ok because chosenness is not about genetics; it’s about choice. Whether or not I understand God’s choice, I am in complete control of my own, and I choose to act as if I’ve been chosen regardless of whether or not I was.
When we look at the characters who are the chosen ones in their respective stories, we see that their lives are often propelled by the knowledge of their destiny and by their passion for their work. Even when they seem to wander, their journeys are always in service of their ultimate goals.
Living a Jewish life, living a CHOSEN LIFE, should provide us with the same clarity and focus. No matter where our paths take us, we should be able to feel the weight of our responsibilities and to sense the true north of our chosen destiny.
I am grateful that the Jewish people was chosen as a collective. I am grateful that there is no Boy-Who-Lived, one slayer in the world, or Once and Future King amongst us. I can not imagine the extreme loneliness that would go along with being singled out as the only chosen one. I am grateful that all of us, with our different backgrounds, different political leanings, different beliefs have been chosen. We can be the fellowship, the scooby gang, the Order of the Phoenix. We can offer one another support and deep understanding. Together, we can choose to be chosen.
As we begin this new year, 5780, the world feels chaotic and dangerous. It would be easy to sink back and to let life happen around us. But we have chosen to be the chosen ones, and our lives must be much more than aimless or passive. We have an important role and all the responsibilities that go along with it. Our lives must reflect our dedication to the pursuit of a just, free, and holy world.
And so, as I conclude this sermon and release you from this thought experiment, I also invite you to join me this year as we ignore our discomfort about the idea of chosenness and instead embrace the opportunity to live a chosen life.
Let’s choose to be chosen and see what we can do! It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.