Parshat Yisro

FRIDAY, February 2nd

What does it mean that we are God’s chosen people? At various times in history, there have been voices within the Jewish tradition that claimed that this means Jews are somehow innately spiritually superior to other peoples. This view is not only offensive to our modern ethical sensibilities; it also contradicts the opening chapters of the Torah itself, which describe how Adam HaRishon, the first human being, ancestor of Jew and gentile alike, was created in the image of God, and received their soul directly from God. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) emphasizes that our common ancestry means that no one can claim their genealogy is superior to anyone else’s.

Given that all human beings are fundamentally equal, and we all are created in the image of God, what does it mean when we say that Israel are the chosen people? A closer look at the verses that speak about Israel’s special relationship with God will make clear that our specialness is not intrinsic, but something we can earn.  In this week’s parsha God says “if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples for all the earth is Mine.’ (Shemot 19:5) Thus, our chosenness is conditional on fulfilling God’s commandments. It is only when we obey God and keep his covenant that we are a “chosen” or “treasured” people.  In other words, we are chosen for a particular job, not for any intrinsic superiority.

One might ask, what does that have to do with the next clause of the verse, “for the whole earth is Mine?”  In the ancient world, people believed that particular gods belonged to particular places and ethnic groups, and that they had special relationships with those gods they worshipped because of where they lived and who they were, regardless of their behavior.  Here, God is letting us know that  because He is the  Creator of heaven and earth, to whom all peoples and all lands belong, our special relationship with God derives exclusively from our covenant with him, and depends on following the laws and instruction He has given us. Without the Torah, there is nothing that sets the Jews from the other nations of the Earth. However, by studying the Torah, and fulfilling  its commandments in order to build a society of holiness and righteousness, we can thus become God’s treasured people.