How can chosenness be a blessing?

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub 

Congregation B’nai Israel 

Rosh Hashanah Day 1/Shabbat 

September 16, 2023

There is an old Yiddish saying “Dear God, You have chosen us from among the nations…Why did you have to pick on the Jews?” (laugh??)

Our siddur and machzor, the books we use to open our hearts and souls see chosenness as an answer to our existential questions.  Who are we and what do we stand for?

מָה אָֽנוּ מֶה חַיֵּֽינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּֽנוּ, מַה צִּדְקוֹתֵֽינוּ, מַה יְּשׁוּעָתֵֽנוּ, מַה כֹּחֵֽנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵֽנוּ, מַה נֹּאמַר לְפָנֶֽיךָ ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ …, וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּ֒הֵמָה אָֽיִן כִּי הַכֹּל הָֽבֶל:

אֲבָל אֲנַֽחְנוּ עַמְּ֒ךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ, בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם אֹהַבְךָ שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּֽעְתָּ לּוֹ בְּהַר הַמֹּרִיָּה, זֶֽרַע יִצְחָק יְחִידוֹ שֶׁנֶּעֱקַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ, עֲדַת יַעֲקֹב בִּנְךָ בְּכוֹרֶֽךָ שֶׁמֵּאַהֲבָתְ֒ךָ שֶׁאָהַֽבְתָּ אוֹתוֹ וּמִשִּׂמְחָתְ֒ךָ שֶׁשָּׂמַֽחְתָּ בּוֹ קָרָֽאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל וִישֻׁרוּן:

..What are we? What is our life? What are our acts of kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our deliverance? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say before You, Adonoy, our God and God of our fathers? …The superiority of man over the beast is nil, for all is futile.

However, we are Your people, children of Your covenant, children of Avraham, Your beloved, to whom You swore on Mount Moriah; the seed of Yitzchak, his only son, who was bound on top of the altar; the community of Yaakov, Your firstborn, [whom]—because of Your love for him and Your joyous delight in him— You named him Yisrael and Yeshurun.

It is an existential passage.  These are core questions of our identities.  Traditionally recited daily, our liturgy asks us who we are and what do we stand for? As Lin Manuel Miranda says in Hamilton’s name, “If you stand for nothing, (burr), then what’ll you fall for?” It then gives us the answer--we are the people of God.  We are the people of the Covenant.  We are the people who have obligations to God and to whom God has obligations to us.

Just a couple weeks ago we were blessed to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Max Alpert, the great grandson of Joan and Jerry Benstock, of blessed memory, the grandson of Michael and Margot Benstock.  In this room, we read Parshat Ki Tavo, where we heard:

You have affirmed this day that God is your God, in whose ways you will walk, whose laws and commandments and rules you will observe, and whom you will obey. 

And God has affirmed this day that you are, as promised, God’s treasured people who shall observe all the divine commandments,

אֶת־Hashem הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים וְלָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֨ר חֻקָּ֧יו וּמִצְוֺתָ֛יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹלֽוֹ׃ 

וַֽHashem הֶאֱמִֽירְךָ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם לִהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְלִשְׁמֹ֖ר כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָֽיו׃

In these verses we see the mutuality of our relationship with God.  We walk in God’s ways.  We observe the commandments to the best of our abilities.  In return, God sees us as treasured people, an am segulah.  While we are reminded that God loves us unconditionally, that does not mean we are without responsibilities.  I love my children regardless of whether or not they do their chores, but I would still very much like them to do them once in a while!  Their chores remind them that they are part of our family, that just as Ema and Abba work to keep up our household, they, too, are part of the family with rights and responsibilities. 

The same idea is expressed by the 13th century French commentator, Chizkuni, who writes:

את ה׳ האמרת היום, “you have affirmed the Lord this day;” you have singled out the Lord today; by accepting G-d’s commandments you, Israel, have adopted the Lord your G-d as your only deity. He has reciprocated by making you His special people, as He demonstrated by all the miracles He performed for your sake.

Each time we are called to the Torah for an aliyah, we recite the blessing “asher bachar banu mikol haamim vnatan lanu et HaTorah”, who has chosen us from all nations and given us the Torah.  Since the enlightenment a few short centuries ago, Jewish scholars, philosophers, rabbis, have debated what does it mean to be the “chosen people.”  Some have shied away from the term, finding it offensive or thinking it is demeaning to other nations.  Many have even wanted to turn our particularist faith into one that is more universal.  While I support the universal values of our tradition, the world needs us to live AS Jews in 5784, in this secular year of 2023.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Dignity of Difference, taught that:

Judaism has a structural peculiarity so perplexing and profound that though Christianity and Islam took much else from it, they did not adopt this: it is a particularist monotheism. It believes in one God but not in one exclusive path to salvation. The God of the Israelites is the God of all mankind, but the demands made of the Israelites are not asked of all mankind....[as the Rabbis say]: 'The pious of the nations have a share in the world to come.' (MT Hilchot Teshuvah 3:5) 

God the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different, teaching humanity to make space for difference. God may at times be found in the human other, the one not like us. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to God's presence. On the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.

While other faiths say join us, believe this and only you will be saved; Judaism says all have the opportunity of salvation.  To be God’s chosen people are not to receive exclusive salvation, but instead more responsibilities.  It seems rather strange!  Amongst our own people,in every generation many have denied our responsibilities, our identities, our true selves.  This is not a new problem.  From the first Babylonian exile to the present, Jews have found comfort and complacency in their surrounding societies. They have forgotten the blessings of their peoplehood AND the power of community.

For too long, we have been afraid of the notion of chosenness. We have seen it as too parochial, too particularistic and even offensive.  See the Pittsburgh Platform or Mordechai Kaplan.  I would argue there is nothing offensive about it at all--if we only reframe just a little bit.

To be a Jew today is not only to be chosen by God, but for us to choose God.  One of the most beautiful aspects of our chosenness is that it is not only biological.  If you convert to Judaism, you are just as chosen as someone who has inherited a hundred generations of Jewish living.  We live in a world of infinite choice.  We can be anything we wish in 21st century America--for better or for worse.  I’m not here to yell at you, the internet or  the TV, but to declare to the world that I am Jewish.  There is nothing that makes me prouder than knowing that I descend from thousands of years of people who have chosen to celebrate their heritage, to observe mitzvot, to live Jewish lives.  

What is meant by a Jewish life and what is meant by the mitzvot has not been as linear or consistent as we might wish or imagine.  We have always adapted to the world around us.  They weren’t wearing shtreimels in the desert, nor were they wearing European cut suits in the early Ottoman empire.  We have adjusted our garments, our definitions of modesty (Tzniut) and even our dietary habits depending on where we have lived.  When a Sephardic Jew eats gefilte fish or an Ashkenazi Jew puts a lot of schug on their falafel we can see that our eating habits have not always been held in common throughout the Jewish world.  At the same time, much of Jewish practice has been continual from generation to generation.  Many Jew were davening a thrice daily Amidah even before the Talmud, pork and shellfish have been forbidden since the Torah, and the gift of Shabbat comes from Creation!

In Poland, Germany, and America at different times, we have attempted vibrant secular Judaism.  Sometimes it has worked better than others.  In this particular moment, I believe we need a little more ritual, a little more yiddishkeit, and a little more Jewish knowledge in our lives.  We need to CHOOSE our Judaism and not only behind closed or even locked doors.  We must also be in the public square.

This is a challenging moment in Jewish history.  Jews may be more successful, more influential, more powerful today than at almost any moment in history. (That’s a scary sentence to write.)  Yet at the same time, like many across the world, assimilation and anti-Semitism threaten the Jewish future.  While I am concerned about anti-Semitism, I fear apathy far more than I fear hate.

A few weeks ago was the sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington, which the Anti-Defamation League, co-chaired.  Sacha Baron Cohen, a prominent and proudly Jewish comic, famous for his caricature of Borat spoke powerfully.  He shared an experience of interviewing some drunken white, male, college students who said America would be greater if we had slaves again.  Cohen said:

They chose to believe some of the oldest and most vile lies that are at the root of all hate. And so it pains me that we have to say it yet again. The idea that people of color are inferior is a lie. The idea that Jews are dangerous and all-powerful is a lie. The idea that women are not equal to men is a lie. The idea that queer people are a threat to our children is a lie.

At other times, I’ve seen people make a different choice. 

As Borat, I once got an entire bar in Arizona to sing, “Throw the Jew down the well”—which revealed people’s indifference to anti-Semitism. But when I tried to film that same exact scene at a bar in Nashville, something different happened. People started to boo. And then they chased me right out of that bar. 

Those people made the choice that brings us all here today—they chose to belief the truth: the truth that we are all deserving of respect, dignity, and equality, no matter who we are, what we look like, how we pray, or who we love.

It is a truly excellent speech.  I encourage you to watch it in its entirely, he shares how social media algorithms encourage virality and extreme content, how ridiculous things are repeatedly shared leading to more and more horrific material.

In our own community, I am enraged that we have to spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to protect our synagogue home.  I am disgusted that we have to worry about protecting the people within this building from the threat of harm.  I am disgusted that someone can disguise their voice in an attempt to disrupt our holy services to encourage fear and discord.  Even more though,  I am frustrated that money that could support innovative programming, a staff member devoted entirely to engagement, educating Jewish souls or even more delicacies from Men’s Club and Sisterhood (wasn’t the taste on august 20 great??) is instead devoted to security.  

There are so many organizations devoted to stopping anti-Semitism.  What worked in the last century was teaching non-Jews about Judaism, showing them that we were not horned Jesus-killers, but neighbors and friends devoted to making the world a better place.  Ultimately, education remains vital.  That is why I accept almost every offer to bless the city council, the school board, the county commission or visit a local school.   (Just this past week, I went to City Hall as the worked to proclaim the IHRA definition of antisemitism, echoing Clearwater a few months before.) In the 21st century, this is also why I keep an internet presence, sharing Torah on Facebook, Instagram, not as much on the X formerly known as Twitter, but now a little bit on TikTok.  This approach will not stop all hate, but it shows the world that we are proud to be American AND helps ensure that Judaism remains vital to the wellbeing of our community for the next hundred years.

What worries me more is will my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a love for God, Torah and Israel.  I can do everything to educate them.  I can do everything to offer them their heritage, but they have to accept it.  They have to love it and share it.  For that, giving them a strong Jewish education and the opportunity to be at Camp Ramah is one of the greatest investments I can make in my own Jewish future.

I will note that this fear is neither new nor unfounded.  Nearly 80 years after the end of the Shoah, we have yet to fully recover our population, and even current numbers are vastly different depending on how we define Judaism.  This summer I once again was a camp photographer at Ramah Darom.  It allowed me a window into camp life and allowed me to be a rabbi who was accessible to hanichim, campers, in so many different ways.  One morning I climbed the Odyssey with Nivo U (entering 10th graders).  After going across this ropes course with them, one of the campers asked me about the laws of Shabbat, and what the Conservative Movement thinks about electricity on Shabbat.

As a rabbi, I love Jewish law.  I love talking about how we can live Jewish lives.  I love when young people care and ask thoughtful questions.  This was a powerful moment.  It was a moment that happened because of Camp.  Jewish camping is an immersive environment.  It is separated from reality, with limited technology, and every activity infused with yiddishkeit.  It is a cloistered environment.  Every year when I return, I strive to bring some of the ruach home with me.  We need the energy and enthusiasm of those young folks.  In that structured environment, where kashrut and tefillah (prayer) are part of their daily lives, they see what our Jewish future COULD be like.  Camp is a space where Judaism is not a footnote, but a central aspect of life.  What would all of our lives look like if we made practicing Judaism more central to our lives?

What would your life look like if you came to Shabbat services more often?  What would it look like if you joined us for classes? For social events?  I am not here to change you--entirely.  I am here to encourage you to see the blessings that are within you, within your neshamah, within your soul.

God chose you, now, will you choose God?  Join us this year to keep choosing your Judaism.  Come back to CBI to learn.  Come back to CBI to grow.  Come back not only on Yom Kippur or for a wedding or a funeral, but come back to live your life in community with others.  Choose life, choose blessing, choose yourself!