Ki Tavo 2019: Are the Jews a chosen people?

This is one of the most difficult questions contained within our torah and our liturgy but it is not something that we should shy away from discussing. Not at all. 

But not because we are so great, actually, because a conversation about chosenness forces us to look deeply at who we are and what we are meant to do.

This morning, I want to think about this, as we look at our parasha, Ki Tavo, and begin to understand our responsibility in this world. 

This morning, Fisher read:

16 The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. 17 You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. 

18 And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments, 19 and that He will choose you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your God.

WOW. That is heavy stuff. Yes, taken out of context, we might only read the part of God looking at us as a treasured people who were chosen…but it is much deeper than that.

As JTS Scholar Hillel Ben Sasson writes, “In this context, it is crucial to note how being “above all the nations” entails fame, reputation (“name”), and glory. High status, indeed, but a status that does not actually include any automatically bequeathed benefits. Quite to the contrary, being “above” other nations is equated with being a holy nation. And what is a holy nation? That we learn from the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26): a holy nation is not only a community that abides by the highest moral standards. It is a group of people who actively strive, in a never-ending progress toward the idea of perfection, to become holy like God Himself.

A careful reading of the paragraph enveloping the chosenness statement discussed here lends further support to the notion that Jewish particularism is anything but chauvinistic, and ought to rather be viewed as an uncompromisingly high moral standard.”

So if that is where we are headed, how do we understand that.

Let’s go back to the beginning, to parashat Bereshit, a parasha which we will encounter in just about a month, after we finish all of the fall Holidays. 

We will see that Adam and Eve  were created in the image of God, and we know that there is no religion ascribed to Adam. Rather,  they are representative of humanity writ large, 

all humans are descended from one father and one mother, was rightly understood by the rabbis as intended to teach the basic equality of the entire human race. This was clearly articulated by them in the statement in the Mishnah that the reason only one man – Adam – was created at the beginning was “so that no one should say to another ‘My father is greater than yours!'” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches that “deviations from this basic principle, such as the teaching found in some mystical circles that Jewish souls are somehow purer or superior to others, are contradictions of Judaism’s normative teaching and should be rejected as such.” 

As Jews, we believe that we have a task that we are set out to do and we can accomplish much of that task by the observance of mitzvoth, which include both ritual and ethical behaviors. As Jews, I also believe we must have theological humility to recognize that although God has a distinct and sacred relationship with us, one in which we are commandment to follow the laws of the covenant, God can access other people in other modes, including language, faith, and reason. We need to each find ways to access God, so that God is a part of our worldly conversation, but not to use God to infringe on the rights and beliefs of others. Rabbi Hammer says that Choseness is indeed a difficult and mysterious doctrine which can be distorted. On the other hand it is so integral to Judaism that it cannot be easily dismissed. Rightly understood, it defines us and our task, but let it never be distorted in such a way as to contradict Judaism’s other basic belief – the oneness and equality of all human beings.

So to understand it, I want to go back to the paragraph from our parasha, as well as other pasukim, verses, from within  our parasha, to enable us to understand how to live out the paradox of being chosen…but for something. 

This parasha puts a mirror to our face-and therefore our actions and cuases us to ask, 

What do we see as our responsibility to others and to God if we are going to take on the mantle of chosenness?

To answer this, I want to look at three parts of our parasha this morning:

What must we do:

First, we must act with a sense of compassion and generosity. We read this morning:

12 When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements,

This is a reminder that there are those who are vulnerable in our midst and we must help lift them up. If we are truly chosen, that means we are chosen for something, and we need to help others. The torah proscribes giving a 10th of our yield. That is one way. Fisher this morning already share with us a way that he has been helping. He has committed time and funds to Masbia, an organization who helps those who need it, eat. 

This text shows us that if we are privileged enough to feel as though we are a treasure than we are responsible to others as well.

We see the Jewish people often step up at moments when those that are vulnerable have been beaten down. I was proud to be able to share two different organizations, Israid and Afya, who are based in Israel, and here in NY, working to bring medical supplies, food, and help to the devastated areas in the Bahamas. These organizations demonstrate how to live out the commandment of helping the most vulnerable. We, as members of the Jewish community are proud when we can point to organizations that are connected to Israel and the Jewish community and see this happening. Simultaneously, we often feel great shame when Jewish names or organizations are associated with moments of great pain and abuse. The list is too long to name but we must take a moment and realize that none of us is so chosen, so treasured, to take part in the abuse of others.

The second way that this parasha commands us to live up to our status of being chosen, is through meaningful ritual engagement. We can’t just say we are Jews, we must act like Jews. 

What does this look like? We read this morning:

1 When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. 3 You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”

I LOVE THIS.

FIrst, it speaks about the power of the land of Israel as a sacred space and I know that Fisher understands the sanctity of the land. I have had the honor of traveling with him, not once, but twice to the Jewish homeland. We have walked the kotel tunnels, we have made chocolate, we have climbed masada, we have learned the stories of our people. Further, in these pasukim, we are taught that we must go to a specific place to do our rituals. We know that in today’s day and age, the sanctuary has replaced the altars that were erected thousands of years ago. Fisher is literally a child of this synagogue. FOr as long as I have been here, and I know for several years before that, Fisher has grown up here. He would speak about bowties w/Rabbi Schranz, and for the past 7 + years we have spent shabbat together where he has, brought himself, to this altar, to this bimah, to accept the responsibility of what it means to be in relationship with God. 

Lastly, and probably the hardest, we are taught in this week’s parasha that we have affirmed this day that the Lord is our God and we will walk in His ways. WHAT CAN THIS POSSIBLY MEAN?

For this, I would like to share a story that i learned last week.

It is a story about a man that I have never met, a man named Dave. This was told by a woman named Sarah.

Dave drives a taxi in Manhattan, and he picked me up from the Upper West Side near Central Park on a rainy morning in April.

“Where to?”

“Newark airport, please.”

Dave wore a suit – a little frayed, but good lines.

He sat up straight.

His hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel.

He was probably sixty years old when he picked me up that rainy day in April – white hair, bushy eyebrows, and wore Jeff Goldblum glasses.

He also wore a yarmulke.

“Where you flying?” He asked me.

“Israel.”

“Oh nice, you know I give to AIPAC and New Israel Fund,” he said. “I love your country. We visit every year – my son is studying there at Hebrew University”

“Wow that’s really cool”

“Yeah we like it – we are even thinking about making Aliyah. Kids are in college now, so we’ll see when they get out.”

“How long have you been driving a taxi?”

“Since September 11, 2002,” he paused. “You know, a year after 9/11.”

“What happened?”

“I was in the North tower – I’m a lawyer. I was late to a meeting because the taxi driver was new and got lost. This was before GPS, and the guy barely spoke English. So the plane hit. And I was late so I was just getting to the building. But I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Being late saved my life.”

“Oh my God.”

“It was a catastrophe. The smoke, the ashes. All the screaming. But that was a crazy day. I remember I was just getting to the door and boom it happened. Then for a second there was only nothing, like it was only a second but it like the whole world got sucked out into this nothingness for that one second and then it was noise and chaos and screaming and people and everything.”

“It must have been a nightmare”

“No it was worse because we were awake. I still had my coffee in one hand and my briefcase in the other, and I couldn’t let go of either. I just stood there like I grew roots and then this young cop told me to move so I did like I was told and I just walked and walked trying to find my wife. She was pregnant.”

“Was she ok?”

“She was fine. She was at home not far from where I picked you up,” his voice lowers like he’s ashamed. “I came home and I couldn’t cope. I just couldn’t cope. And she couldn’t cope with me and she lost the baby. It got worse. And I couldn’t concentrate. The only thing that calmed me down was riding taxis – because that driver had saved my life by being late. I just felt safe in taxis. So I would finish work and just ride in them. Some guys drank too much to forget. Some gambled. Some took drugs and went to prostitutes. I rode in taxis. We all tried to cope.”

“That must have been so hard.”

“It was. But then my wife said to me in the middle of a fight ‘why don’t you just quit your job and drive a taxi?’ And then this warm feeling washed all over me. I knew it was what God wanted me to do. So I left the firm and became a taxi driver on the first anniversary of 9/11.”

“That’s amazing,” I said with a lump in my throat.

“It was just the right path. That taxi driver saved my life because of a matter of seconds and missing some stupid turn. But I know it was really God watching over us. Maybe I’ll be able to do the same for someone else.”

Dave looked up at the roof. “God is in charge but we are His partners here on earth. And this is what I’m meant to do. Hashem take the wheel.”

We all need to take the wheel. Of our lives and of this world. We need to set ourselves on the right course. Tonight we observe Selichot and we are just over a week from Rosh Hashanah. If we haven’t started looking closely yet at our behaviors, it is time to start.

We need to readjust. We can’t assume that just because we are chosen for something great that it will happen. It is on us to take up the mantle of responsibility.

I know that Fisher will be able to do it. Will the rest of us?

Shabbat shalom.