The Chosen (Last) People

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The idea that the Jewish nation considers itself to be the “chosen people” is something that rubs many people the wrong way. Such a term smacks of elitism and supremacy. Do we Jews really believe that we have some innate quality that makes us a “master race?”

Upon examining a famous midrash (a commentary to the Bible based on exegesis, parable, and/or legend) it appears that the answer is no. We’re told that God offered the Torah to all the nations of the world before offering it to the Children of Israel, but every nation asked what was in it, and upon learning of the specific commandments, passed it up, one by one.

Then God offered it to the Jews and we responded, “naaseh, v’nishmah,” meaning first we’ll agree to do it and then we’ll learn about the details. Now while we’re certainly praised for being the only ones willing to accept the Torah with no questions asked, is there not something troubling about the fact that we were the very last on the list? Out of the entire world?

It would be like a friend inviting you to a great concert, but only giving you a call after she literally asked every single person she knew, and they all turned her down. You wouldn’t feel particularly “chosen” at that point, now would you?

So how do we reconcile this midrash with the fact that we are in fact called “the chosen people?” I believe the answer to this problem actually helps with our original problem of recognizing that calling oneself “chosen” doesn’t sound so nice.

It appears that the specialness of the Jewish people is not due to some favoritism that made God want to offer us the Torah first. Everyone nation had a chance to get the Torah. Every nation had a chance to have a special relationship with God. Every nation had a chance to be chosen. Perhaps we earned the title of “the chosen people” because we are the only ones who chose the Torah. 

That’s not to say that our forefathers and foremothers did not have amazing traits that we could all tap into should we try, but it seems that calling ourselves “chosen” is more about something we do rather than something that was just handed to us on a silver platter. And with Shavuos (the holiday which commemorates receiving the Torah) fast approaching, we each have the opportunity to choose the Torah again.

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Thus the famous couplets:

    How odd of G-d
    To choose the Jews.

    Not so odd -
    The Jews chose G-d!

  2. Nelle Fastman Pingree says:

    I just joined the group and read this and loved it. My Rabbi, Neil Comess-Daniels has slways offered this as the the answer to that uncomfortable question, “We are a choosing people” and I add, Maybe the scribe heard it wrong (lol)”.

  3. Todd Schiff says:

    The mashal can’t be accurate, right? no group tells of a time when they were asked by G-d if they would have him as their G-d. I imagine this national revelation would be recorded somewhere in the history of every group.

    Also, why were we last to be asked? Some nation that bit the head off live chickens was preferred to us?

    Tuvia

    • Thanks for your comment, Tuvia. a) it’s possible that these nations don’t exist any more – many ancient nations no longer exist and b) i don’t think we necessarily have to take the story literally. as they say, “all medrashim are true – they just all didn’t necessarily happen.” I think the truth that we’re supposed to learn from the medresh is that what makes us chosen is that we accepted the responsibility when the choice was given to us.

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