I don’t recall the exact circumstance, but somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory I remember talking to a devout person of a different religion. They had found out that I was a Jew and in a flattering manner they praised that I was “one of the chosen people.” I took the praise with a grain of salt, replying, “If it’s so great to be chosen, why don’t you become Jewish?” They gave me some unconvincing excuses about how they couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to do such a thing. Clearly, their motives belied another agenda.
But this notion of being chosen has felt problematic to me for a couple of reasons. One, who am I to think I’m better than anyone? What did I do? And two, the question I asked this person, if being chosen is so important, how come virtually anyone can convert?
Approaching very rapidly is the holiday of Shavuos, the holiday where we celebrate God revealing Himself at Mount Sinai and giving the Jewish people the Torah. But if we look at that moment in the Torah, as well as the special reading of the day (Megillas Ruth), we will find that this question of what it means to be the Chosen people is inseparable from the holiday.
The giving of the Ten Commandments (and all of the Torah) appears in the Torah portion entitled Yisro. Yisro is Moses’s father-in-law, a priest of Midian, and notably isn’t a Jew. Quite an oddity that arguably the most important Parsha in the Torah is named after someone who isn’t from the Children of Israel. The first line of Yisro is as follows:
Yisro heard, priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, about all that Elohim had done for Moshe and for His people Yisrael, when Hashem brought Yisrael out of Egypt. (Shemos 18:1)
I’m going to leave that quote aside for a moment and move on to Megillas Ruth. The Book of Ruth is a rather short story that follows the title character after she loses her husband. Her husband was Jewish, but notably Ruth wasn’t. In fact she was a Moabite, a nation of people that in many ways are at odds with what it means to be Jewish. However, Ruth after her husband’s death cleaves to her mother-in-law Naomi, despite her insistence that Ruth should go elsewhere for a better life. Ruth’s response?
“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people, and you God is my God. Where you will die, will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may Hashem do to me – and more- if anything but death separates me from you.” (Megillas Ruth 1:16-17)
This moment is so notable that it is from this interaction that we learn out the conditions necessary for someone to convert to Judaism. Why all this focus on converts? The simple answer is that the event that took place at Sinai was a mass conversion. Before, we were Hebrews. Then we became the Jewish people. But I think there’s something deeper going on.
When Receiving Becomes Active
The holiday of Shavuos is known as zman matan Toraseinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. Shavuos is a great opportunity to learn and relearn the precious gift of the Torah. We stay up all night, hear amazing speakers, and hopefully we rededicate ourselves. But note that the prayer says not “matan Torah” but “matan Toraseinu,” the giving of our Torah. How do we take ownership of the Torah?
With parshas Yisro, it starts out with “Yisro heard.” Rashi asks, “What did he hear?” His answer is that he heard about the splitting of the Reed Sea. There is a Midrash that says when the waters of the sea split, all waters of the world split. Did every cup of soup and water puddle split? I don’t know. But the message is clear, everyone in the world heard about the miracle. So why did only one person do something about it?
The Book of Ruth starts with someone running away from a responsibility. There is a famine in the land of Israel and a rich man named Elimelech and his sons leave to go to Moab so they don’t have to be bothered by people asking for money. Then the story refocuses on Ruth, someone who makes a choice to assume responsibilities, sight unseen. Not only does Ruth become a Jew, but she becomes the great grandmother of King David, the prototype of Jewish royalty and eventually the messianic lineage.
Being a part of the chosen people isn’t that God hand picked you (though He did). It’s about us choosing God. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people are asked if they will receive God’s Torah without the chance to read it. Their response is the famous “Na’asay V’nishma,” “we will do and we will listen.“
Making the Torah your Torah is a daily choice, but it isn’t an easy one. It doesn’t matter who your parents are, where you were born, what your salary is, or what your grades in school were. All that matters is your will.
Chosen means Small not Big
If you’re still a little bothered by an implication of inequality by the term “Chosen,” I’ll share an idea I learned from Rabbi YY Jacobson. You might think that being Chosen would bring arrogance, attitudes of superiority, and aggrandizement. However the Rabbi points out that the Kabbalistic name of Hashem is “Ein Sof.” He who is without end.
For one to understand what an Infinite God truly means, it insists that I must view myself as small, with humility. The more one minimizes their ego, the more space that person creates to feel and accept that Infinity. Meanwhile if someone hears that they are Chosen and uses that idea to bolster themselves as great or superior, they are inherently undermining and minimizing the Oneness of Hashem. The more you minimize your personal desire in order to fulfill Hashem’s will, the more you’ve authentically accepted His Torah and are honestly living the role of the Chosen people.