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The Choosing People

Dvar Torah: The Choosing People

Rabbi Allison Poirer,  Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham MA,  CY 2016

After forty years of wandering, this final book of the Torah opens with the Israelites assembled on the Plains of Moav, poised to enter the Promised Land. Moshe delivers a farewell speech in which he strives to both mourn and celebrates, encourage and warn them. He delivers a humbling description of their origins, saying, “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you. Indeed, you are the smallest of peoples! But it was because the Lord loved you passionately, and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh, king of Egypt” (Devarim 7:7-8).

According to this description, God freed the Israelites and brought them to the Promised Land because of the strange, powerful, passionate, and dangerous love God has for them. In describing God’s love of the Israelites, Moshe uses the word “חָשַׁ֧ק” meaning that God “set God’s heart” on them, using the same word that describes the unbridled passion that Shechem felt for Dinah. This is an unreasonable and inexplicable love that leads God from jealousy to rage and back to forgiveness without very much logic or explanation at all.

Generations of Jews have struggled to understand our role as the chosen objects of this wild and powerful passion. As “The Chosen People,” what we are chosen to do? What does that mean for our relationship with God, ourselves, and others? Sarah Hurwitz suggests that “A better name for us would be ‘the choosing people’ – the people who choose to accept a particular covenant with the Divine, and who must continue choosing, in each new generation, to honor it” (Sarah Hurwitz, Here All Along, 25). Her point is well taken. Being chosen is only meaningful if we choose to respond to it. We learn a similar lesson from the extra-biblical text of the Harry Potter series. Those of you who have read “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” will remember that Harry is particularly troubled by Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy identifying him as “The Chosen One.” However, Dumbledore later explains this prophecy is not binding on any of the people it mentions. Rather, “what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so…Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him – and, in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him. It only has power if people choose to listen to it”(Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, chapter 23).

Similarly, our role as God’s Chosen People only has significance if we choose to respond to it in a meaningful way. Our chosenness is not elitist: Moshe made it clear that God didn’t choose us because we’re the biggest or the best. And our chosenness is not conditional: God’s choice does not depend on us completing a specific task or being an exceptionally good example for everyone else. God chose to love us because God loves us. But like the prophecy about Harry Potter, that choice only has power if we do something back. This is why Moshe is so emphatic about the mitzvot. Living life in accordance with the commandments is the best way Moshe believes we can respond to God’s choice. God will love us either way, but without the mitzvot, God is just some poor sap running around pining after us. To borrow a metaphor from Rabbi Heschel, if we don’t do the mitzvot, God will be searching for man indefinitely! Unrequited love really isn’t that fun for anyone. Fulfilling the mitzvot is our way of reciprocating this great, inexplicable love from God.

As a strong supporter of the concepts of free will and personal responsibility for our behavior, I like the idea of choice as a response to being chosen, as long as it doesn’t take away from our sense of duty to G-d for this life that we have been given. Thus, this week DVar Torah:
Shabbat Shalom / Gut Shabbas

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