This Week's Torah Portion: The Real Meaning of ‘Chosen People’ (Part 45)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath Rë’é (Deuteronomy XI, 26-XVI, 17)

For you are a people holy to Ha-Shem your G-d, and Ha-Shem has chosen you to be an ‘am sëgulla from all of the peoples on the face of the Earth (XIV, 2).

This verse accompanies Moshe’s reiteration of the laws of kashruth in Leviticus. The reason given in both places for these commandments is Israel’s qëdusha (“sanctity”) and havdala (“separation”) from the rest of mankind. These are two sides of the same coin.

Qëdusha connotes being set aside or dedicated to some unique purpose. One speaks, in English as well as in Hebrew, of being “sacred to” or “consecrated for” some purpose or cause. Our verse thus combines both the “positive” aspect of “dedication to” (qadosh la-Shem) and the “negative” aspect of “separation from” all other nations.

Rashi, commenting on the verse, notes that Israel’s status as an ‘am qadosh la-Shem radiates both from the inherent qëdusha inherited from the Patriarchs, founders of the nation, and also because of being “chosen from all of the peoples.”

Why is this dual aspect to Israel’s status important, and why is it particularly mentioned here?

The notion of Israel’s “exclusivity” and “chosenness” is a subtle one, easily (and often) misunderstood.

Jews are often portrayed by non-Jews as “clannish” or “snobbish”; the more radical anti-Semites impute a still more sinister meaning to the concept. See shades of the National Socialist notion of the Herrenvolk (“master race”) in such documents as the infamous forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The middle clause of our verse tells us that Israel was chosen to be an ‘am sëgulla. Rashi (on Exodus XIX, 5), basing himself on the phrase sëgullath mëlachim in Ecclesiastes II, 8, defines a sëgulla as a “precious treasure.” The great 12th century sage Rabbi Avraham ibn ‘Ezra (Even ‘Ezra ad loc.) similarly defines it as “an honored and coveted thing, such that another like it will not be found.”

The Ha‘améq Davar, in his comment on our verse, defines the concept in the following terms: “That everyone who comes to serve Ha-Shem from all of the peoples shall enter and be collected in you.” The Ha‘améq Davar’s comment is beautiful and even poetic, but his definition of a sëgulla seems difficult to reconcile with Rashi’s and the Even ‘Ezra’s. Further, it flies in the face of what our verse has to tell us about qëdusha and havdala.

How is it possible, in the Ha‘améq Davar’s own words, to be “separate and differentiated from all the peoples on the face of the Earth” while at the same time to be encouraging “everyone who comes … from all of the peoples”?

The answer, in my humble opinion, lies in Rashi’s description of the dual basis of Israel’s qëdusha.

Israel was “chosen” by Ha-Shem as the culmination of the process of a deliberate breeding program. The great 18th century scholar, Rabbi Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto, in his Derech HaShen, notes that the entire focus of the written Torah reflects this program. Genesis opens with the origin of the cosmos, immediately focuses on the Earth, then on mankind. The Torah is further narrowed to the line of descent of Noach, to that of Avraham. From Genesis XII on, virtually the sole subject of the rest of the Torah, indeed, all of Tanach, is the line of descent which led to Israel, and Israel itself. Other peoples are mentioned only insofar as they impinge on the story of Israel.

The object of this breeding program is described by the written Torah more than once as an ‘am qëshé ‘oref, a “stiff-necked people” whom Moshe found initially hard to convince of his mission, but who, once convinced, have clung ever since stubbornly and tenaciously to Torah in spite of everything.

The Bë’ér Moshe tells us that the reason for the proximity of our verse to the laws of kashruth lies in their characterization as chuqqim, laws for which there is not necessarily a rational basis. He cites Rashi on Leviticus XX, 26. One should not say: “‘I am repelled by swine flesh … ’ but that one should say, ‘I could [eat it] but what can I do? My Father in Heaven has decreed it upon me.’”

Thus Israel was chosen because Israel would cling to the Torah and its commandments with a tenacity which would seem to the world crazy, no matter what was offered as an inducement to abandon them. It is this which makes Israel “a precious treasure, an honored and coveted thing such that another like it will not be found.”

It is precisely this nature which is necessary to Israel as Ha-Shem’s standard-bearer throughout our long and bitter exile. The prophet Yisha‘yahu (Isaiah III) left Israel with no illusions as to what that exile would entail. But our exile has not been without a purpose. By being scattered across the world but nonetheless remaining true and steadfast, Israel has served as a spiritual magnet for the finest and most spiritual individuals among the nations. This is also the meaning of sëgulla: the verb siggél mens “adapt, adjust, make someone or something conform.” In this sense, the material of souls can be formed on Israel.

Israel performs this mission by continuing to exist and remaining faithful to her covenant. There need be no “evangelizing”; truth attracts the souls who are ready for it in and of itself.

An indication that this is Israel’s mission may be found in the Rabbis’ note, as buttressed by the misadventures of the ‘erev rav (“mixed multitude”) throughout the Torah, that proselytizing is not to Israel’s advantage. Israel would always seem to be much better off left to cultivate her own garden.

But as the Ha‘améq Davar says, the converts came of their own volition to serve Ha-Shem, and they thereby make the treasure that much more precious.