Friday, September 4, 2015

You're the Best! / Parshat Ki Tavo 2015-5775

Click here to download pdf version of this drash.

We have all known parents who speak about their children only in the superlative: Hes the smartest kid in his class. Shes the best reader in her grade. Hes the most artistic kid in the school. Shes the best player on her team. Setting aside how listeners (especially other parents) may feel when subjected to this parental patter, we might wonder: What effect does this have on children spoken to, and of, in this hyperbolic manner? Do they feel supported by their parents belief in their abilities? Do they feel pressure to live up to their parents expectations? And what effect does singling them out have on their relations with their peers?

God, the cosmic parent expresses similar superlatives through Moses in this weeks sedra, Ki Tavo:

וַיהוָה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְוֹתָיו.  וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.

Adonai has affirmed this day that you are, as [God] promised you, [Gods] treasured people who shall observe all [Gods] commandments, and that [God] will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that [God] has made; and that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to Adonai your God. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19)

This passage is one of several expressions of what has come to be known as the Chosenness doctrine: the belief that God chose the people Israel among all the nations to fulfill the covenant of Torah and that Israel thereby has a special and unique relationship with God. This ancient idea has been the source of untold and immeasurably grief and suffering[1], a favorite trope of anti-Semites[2], and popular tripe for Jews who would see the Jewish people as superior to others. Of course, having a special and unique relationship with God doesnt preclude God having special and unique relationships with other nations, and the purpose of chosennessto keep the covenant of Torahis conveniently ignored by both sides.

I sometimes think that the idea of chosenness, much like the my-child-is-best idea, resides at the intersection of the natural human desire to feel distinctive and unique, and the natural human proclivity to compete with others. Apparently, what happens on the individual level can happen on the national level, as well. Where does this leave Israel, Gods child? Pressured to live up to high expectations? Supported by Gods confidence in them? And what of their relations with peers?

The Torahs true perspective might be helpful when we approach the idea of chosenness, and also for parents who are inclined to speak of their children in the superlative. Lest we think that Israel is inherently superior, endowed with exceptional attributes, qualities, or powers, Torah tells us this:

לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק יְהוָה בָּכֶם--וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם:  כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת-הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם, הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה; וַיִּפְדְּךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, מִיַּד פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרָיִם.

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that Adonai set his heart on you and chose youindeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because Adonai favored you and kept the oath [God] made to your ancestors that Adonai freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

Here we find that God chooses the Israelites and redeems them from Egypt not because they are inherently superior to other nations, but rather in fulfillment of a commitment made to Abraham who, from the perspective of Torah, was an arbitrary choice.[3] There is no suggestion from Torah concerning why God chose Abram. The Rabbis, however, fill this lacuna with copious midrashim attesting to Abrams extraordinary spiritual insights, strength, and resilience; they presume that Abram was an innately superior individual and that God recognized this even if Torah does not record it. However, is it possible that Abram was ordinary until God selected him, and the selection itself imbued him with a sense of purpose and potential that helped him become extraordinary? Is this what Moses was doing on Gods behalf in telling the Israelites that [God] will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that [God] has made; and that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to Adonai your God? Does this happen to our children when we shower them with accolades and praise?

In fact our passage from Ki Tavo is most often read as exhortation: Moses is calling the Israelites to fulfill their potential, making it a wonderful passage to be reading shortly before Rosh Hashanah, a day on which doing teshuvah (repentance) should focus us on our untapped and unfulfilled potential and promise, just as a new year of possibility unfolds before us. Exhortation can support and encourage a child or a nation to aim higher, but it can also have a dark side: it can also be construed as a branding of superiority that actually exempts the child or the group from exerting greater effort because, after all, they are destined for fame and renown and glory.

The Rabbis are wise to temper the notion of chosenness with an eloquent reminder that all human beings share in Gods holiness and none is inherently superior: after all, everyone descends from the same ancestor:

להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים, הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע מאה מטבעות בחותם אחד, וכולן דומין זה לזה, מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע את כל האדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון, ואין אחד מהם דומה לחברו.

Humanity was produced from one human being, Adam, to show God's greatness. When a person mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy One, Blessed be God, creates human beings in the form of Adam, not one is similar to any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Rabbi Akiba frames our tendency to wish to see ourselves as special and unique, set apart and uncommonly (or even exclusively) endowed with certain attributes in a fascinating way. He affirms Israels sense of being uniquely beloved of God, but only after affirming that all people are beloved of God and everyone is created in the divine image. And what is more, everyone knows that they are. Israels sense of uniqueness does not stand outside humanity, but in the very stream of humanity, all of whom are beloved of God.

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם; חיבה יתרה נודעת לו שנברא בצלם, שנאמר "כי בצלם אלוהים, עשה את האדם" (בראשית ט,ו).  חביבין ישראל שנקראו בנים למקום; חיבה יתרה נודעת להם שנקראו בנים למקום, שנאמר "בנים אתם, לה' אלוהיכם" (דברים יד,א).  חביבין ישראל, שניתן להם כלי שבו נברא העולם; חיבה יתרה נודעת להם שניתן להם כדי שבו נברא העולם, שנאמר "כי לקח טוב, נתתי לכם; תורתי, אל תעזובו.

R. Akiva used to say, "Beloved is humanity, for they were created in God's image. Exceedingly loved are they, for it was made known to them that they are created in the divine image, as it is written, In the image of God, man was created (Genesis 9:6). The mishna goes on to say, "Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God; it is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of God, as it said, 'You are the children of the Lord, your God. Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them                 (Pirke Avot 3:18)

Put another way: British journalist[4] William Norman Ewer (18851976) coined the well-known epigram: How odd of God to choose the Jews, to which Prof. Anonymous appended, Not so odd; the Jews chose God.

Rabbi Akiba subtly and lovingly asks us to consider our chosenness in the context of everyones specialness. Many years ago, when my oh-so-wise husband thought one or another of the kids was acting, well let me tell you what he would say to them and I think  youll get the picture:  Yes, you are unique in all the worldjust like everyone else.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The prophet Amos suggests that designation chosen people might not be such a prize: You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities (Amos 3:2).
[2] Inspiring Tevyes complaint to God in Fiddler on the Roof: I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
[3] Adonai said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your fathers house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Avram went forth as Adonai had commanded him (Genesis 12:1-4).
[4] Historical trivia: he was also a Soviet agent!

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