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God's People Israel: Confidence in Chosenness - Ki Tavo 5781

August 28, 2021

Earlier in our service this morning, we blessed God, habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahava, the one who chooses God’s people Israel with love. In just a few minutes, we’ll bless God again, asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim v’natan lanu et Torato, the one who chose us from all of the nations and gave us God’s Torah. As we learn in Parshat Ki Tavo, if we act according to this Torah that God has given us, blessings will come. We will see a land flowing with milk and honey, we will be blessed wherever we are, wherever we go, and in all of our agricultural, personal, and national pursuits. When we read the blessings, they might make us feel some warm fuzzies, but then, when we start to read the curses for not acting according to God’s will, we encounter a daunting list of gruesome details. We will first be cursed in everything that God says we have the potential to be blessed in, and then, we’ll be in constant fear, we’ll be beaten into a pulp, we’ll be so destitute we’ll have to eat our own children, and the list goes on. We are God’s chosen people, chosen for some good if we do good but chosen for a whole lot of destruction if we do not. I think to myself of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “I know, I know,” he says. “We are Your chosen people. But once in awhile, can’t You choose someone else?”

When I was looking at rabbinical schools, I spent a lot of time exploring Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Since I had gone to college near Philadelphia, some of my greatest mentors were Reconstructionist rabbis. I loved the teachers, the small school atmosphere, and the flexibility of learning and practice. However, I could not get behind Reconstructionism’s abandonment of the idea of Jewish chosenness in favor of Judaism as one of many folkways. While I understand that the idea of one people, our people, being singled out by the Divine can be irksome in the modern mind, I believe that this chosenness has the ability to inspire us to act with a sense of importance we might not feel otherwise. If we are just another set of traditions and beliefs, how do we take seriously the charge that neglecting the mitzvot, neglecting to take care of the world around us, will have real, terrifying consequences? When I read the second paragraph of the Shema, telling me that environmental chaos will ensue if I do not follow the mitzvot, I think about the pollution we are letting into the water of those in impoverished communities when we ignore the command of bal taschit, do not wastefully destroy. When our parsha says that by not following the mitzvot, we will be struck with the punishment of confusion and bewilderment, I think about the mitzvah to teach our children and the cost to our country of not investing enough in the education of every single citizen of our nation.  Each time we take a bribe or forget to treat the stranger as our own, we contribute to a vision of the kind of chaotic, careless society that that list of curses warns us about. When we take seriously the charge that we are obligated by the force that creates and sustains the universe to be the best we possibly can, we recognize our immense responsibility as citizens of the world. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff says, “Chosenness is not that we are inherently better than anyone else, but that we are committed to trying to be better.” 

Now, will we get there anytime soon? Probably not. Hopefully not. The ideal is that every community in the world is dedicated to practicing the most good possible, to pushing the limits on what that good looks like, so that no one community is ahead for very long. However, the ideal is also that the communities with which we choose to identify are those that we believe will put out the most good in the world. In the Jewish community, we have a guidebook of mitzvot, of deeds we are chosen to take on in order to get us to being the best we can and to inspire other communities to up their game as well. It not only benefits us to make the world a better place; we believe ourselves to be directly commanded by God to do good in the world. As we will read today, God makes us directly aware of the consequences if we slack off in our job.

Our parsha begins to tell us about what this “being better” entails with the passage beginning arami oved avi, “My father was a wandering - or lost, despaired - Aramean.” We hear it every year on Pesach, and we are reminded about how we were slaves, beaten down and oppressed by the Egyptians, and then, about how God led us out of Egypt. In Parshat Ki Tavo, we learn that this is the passage each Israelite is commanded to recite when he brings the first fruits he harvests each year as a gift to the Temple. The Israelites are commanded not to let a moment of gratitude pass without recognition of their past suffering. And the Israelites are commanded to act on that recognition, to give of their bounty to those who are in dire straits - to the landless Levites, the stranger, the poor and the widow. As the Pesach Haggadah reminds us, “in every generation, every person is obligated to see herself as if she came out of Egypt.” 

From whatever our place of privilege is in the world, as Jews, we are called to reach deep into our most painful memories, historical and personal, in order to assist those we see in similar pain. As part of the Jewish community, those whose story is rooted in freedom, that might mean becoming socially aware and active in modern issues involving human trafficking and refugee status. As individuals, that could mean using our past experiences with mental or physical illness, childhood bullying, poverty, or whatever struggles we have been through in order to provide loving support for those who are struggling in the present. Through attachment to memory, we are chosen not only to exercise gratitude for where we are now but never to forget where we’ve been.

“On this day,” Moshe says in our parshah, “Adonai your God is commanding you to do these laws and these judgments and to keep them and to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. God has made you speak today, to be for yourself as gods and to walk in God’s ways…” Chosenness, here, is the call to behave like God - not only to do what God desires but to act godly. This can mean embodying the aspects of God that stand out to us in the texts we know and love - God’s thirteen attributes of kindness, God’s inability to stand for anything less than justice, or God as a loving spouse or parent. It can also mean putting ourselves in the shoes of the Creator of the Universe, asking ourselves at each moment what the best action would be to preserve this world that we worked so hard to fashion and painstakingly scramble to maintain. Being godly, in a sense, is the idea that every being in the world is someone we love and care about and that every event that happens to anyone will affect our reality. And finally, part of acting godly must be inspiring others to be godly as well. In our Haftarah this week, Isaiah swoons that we should be a “light unto nations.” In the same way that God in our text becomes a model towards which we aspire, we can view ourselves as potential sources of inspiration with our every action.

The Talmud teaches repeatedly, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh. Each member of the nation of Israel is intertwined with each other. The acts that we perform affect our entire community, and the suffering or triumph we experience affects the rest of us, too. It is integral but not enough for each of us to aspire to godliness, for each of us to individually seek out modes of helping the homeless, the immigrant, the hungry, and the ill. It is important but not enough for each of us to see the suffering or the joy in another and to sit with that experience in our own bodies, to figure out how we can best be of assistance. 

We must take one step further and demand our fellow Jews to take their Judaism seriously, too. The next time you speak with a friend you haven’t seen in synagogue in awhile, remind them about the High Holy Days, and invite them to join you for a meal or services. Tell your sister across the country to which organizations you donate and why those organizations fit with your Jewish values. When you Zoom with or visit your children or grandchildren, let them know why you are proud to live your Judaism, and express your gratitude when they make Jewish choices, too. In the words of Rabbi Ed Feinstein, our “Jewish pride [is] an obligation towards the world - a special sense of particularism that is always turned outwards.” And as our parshah blesses and curses us in community rather than as individuals, our pride works best in community, with the collective sound of our voices in shul and the brightness of our candles on Hanukah.

We embrace our Judaism because we believe that our rituals and values have the power to transform our world. In order to achieve the ideal of a “land (a world) of milk and honey,” both here and everywhere we act, we must actively choose to be part of the Chosen, to actively reject that notion that God should “once in a while, choose someone else.”

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784