An interesting confluence of events led me to this week's musing. Hanukah is fast approaching, and it is a time when we are called upon to publicly assert our Judaism with the display of our hanukiyot. Also, when choosing what to include in this week's edition of Bim Bam, a Jewish teen e-zine that I am editing again this year for Torah Aura, I chose some interesting content. One was an opinion piece that suggests that the American Jewish community is wasting all this effort and energy getting all worked up about Xmas, and blaming it for the rising tide of assimilation. The author suggests that we need to stop blaming outside factors for our problems--if Jews aren't being drawn to Jewish things it's because we, as Jews, aren't doing what's needed to draw them in. The second was a series of articles from a variety of perspectives that asked the reader to consider the standard to which Israel must hold itself to be a "Jewish" state-is Israel being "all it can be?" Then there is the Intro to Judaism course I am teaching for the regional office of the URJ. On a fairly regular basis, the question of "chosen-ness" comes up. And this is no less true for the religious school I administer, and another one where I teach.
There is, in general, a certain discomfort, even distaste among many Jews (though I would have to admit that in my experience it is primarily liberal Jews) for this whole concept of "chosen-ness." I'm fond of pointing out in response that our "chosen-ness" is, a Teyve puts it "no great honor, either." And of stating that Torah doesn't really say that the choice is exclusive-leaving room for Gd to make other choices and other covenants. I've always felt a little like I was "pushing the envelope" by making such a claim, but have always felt that, for the sake of both Jewish identity, interfaith harmony, and accepting the reality of a multiplicity of religious traditions, I needed to be pro-active in taking away our internal discomfort with being chosen people and at the same time not fueling the fire of those who would use that against us. "Chosen doesn't mean better," I often say. "Chosen doesn't mean exclusive, either." Yet I balance. I, for one, am fully comfortable with the words of the Aleinu, and don't care for congregations that opt to eliminate "shelo asanu k'goyei ha-aratzot, v'lo samanu k'mishpakhot ha-adamah." (did not make us like the (other) nations of the lands, and did not place us amongst all the families of the earth.) So I have found my comfort with "chosen-ness."
So imagine how I felt when I bumped up against these words in the Haftarah reading for Vayeshev, from Amos 3:2:
"Rak etkhem yadati mikol mishpakhot ha-adamah, al-kein efkod aleichem et kol-avonoteikhem."
Only you have I known from all the families of the earth; therefore I will draw near to (i.e. give attention to) your iniquities. (That's my translation. JPS says "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth-That is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.")
Far be it from me to question such august personages as the JPS's translation committee, but I don't see where they derive "singled out" from "yadati," I have known. So I can dispute the "singled out" part. But the "rak etkhem" the "only you (plural)" is harder to dismiss.
Oh sure, I can play all sorts of twists and turns with the Hebrew and its meaning, as well as the context, and still find both support for chosen-ness while not flaunting it or lording it over others.
Yet there's that second half to the verse. That fully endorses the idea that "chosen-ness" isn't always such a blessing. It is precisely because Gd has chosen us that we will have to account for our actions. To be a Jew means direct accountability to Gd for our actions (or failures to act.) To be a Jewish state, Israel does have to live up to high expectations.
Still, this doesn't seem to help solve the Xmas question--do we stubbornly stand against America's commercial Xmas (and Hanukah) or do we accept it (them) for the largely secular things they have become, hiding only deep within them their true meanings, and expend our energies at getting our own house in order? Which of these actions (or failures to act) will Gd call us to account for? Which is the greater sin - accepting a little bit of the realities of modern life, or failing to figure out why it is that Jews just don't seem to be attracted to Judaism anymore? Or are we failing in both areas, and are to be called account for this double failure?
Of course this leads us to the whole question what sins or iniquities are. Some things are rather well-defined for us in the Torah. Others are somewhat less defined but have been given some dimension through the oral Torah (or, if you prefer, the work of the rabbis and sages.) Some are only inferred, and some seem to just not be there but made up of whole cloth somewhere along the line of our history.
So look at all these dilemmas we are left with. (Sure seems to knock the "December Dilemma" off the top of the attention ladder. And calling it the "December opportunity" is no different. Either way, we're making it (the proximity of Hanukah and Xmas) a focus--and perhaps we do need to be more focused on what it is we don't seem to be able to do. On the other hand...how can we ignore the realities that we face each day about Xmas and Hanukah?
No sir (or madam,) chosen-ness ain't such a special thang. If we weren't among Gd's chosen people, we might not have to wrestle with so many things all the time. Still, as the song goes "...I wouldn't trade it for a pot of gold." Let's go on with the show!
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some additional musings on this parasha:
5758-What's Worth Looking After
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
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