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The Holiness of the Day: Chosenness

Posted on September 3, 2017 by Rabbi Jim Bennett

One of the most difficult Jewish ideas for many of us who seek Jewish meaning is the idea of the “chosen people.” Were we chosen, or are we choosing? Does this idea of being chosen mean that we have been singled out, or is it simply a way to identify our unique destiny, different from others but neither greater nor less?

Personally, I’ve always found the idea of chosenness uncomfortable. I don’t want others to call the Jewish people “The Chosen People.” It makes me feel as if they are saying that God likes us better, or wants more of us, or expects us to be better than the rest of humanity.

I guess the idea of being the “Choosing People” makes more sense to me in this day and age; it’s less about being chosen for some special role than it is about deciding to act, to respond, to refuse the temptation of avoiding responsibility for myself and for my world. It would be so easy not to choose. Not to choose God, not to choose faith, not to choose action, not to choose anything at all – but merely to drift through life without meaning or purpose. I like the idea of having to make a choice. Of choosing a life that matters, that makes a difference, that can change the world – while changing myself and others along the way.

To this end, our new High Holiday prayerbook offers unique insights into ancient texts of our liturgy that mention or elevate our gratitude to God for this challenge of Choosing or Chosenness. We cannot simply avoid facing the issue.

In our machzor, for example, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg writes, “The chosenness of the Jews is a mystery. Only God knows the purpose of setting apart an obscure tribe to suffer and to achieve more than could be expected from so small a band on so stormy a journey. All that we Jews can know about ourselves is that after every tragedy we have always made new beginnings…There is no quiet life for Jews anywhere, at least not for long. The only question is whether one lives among the tempests with purpose and dignity. We Jews know why we suffer. Society resents anyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior and prejudices…the claim to chosenness guarantees that Jews will live unquiet lives. I say it is far better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity, than to live timidly and fearfully. We cannot hide from the task of making the world more just and decent.” (Quoted in Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, p. 231)

For some, this idea of being chosen to “goad and irritate” humanity in order to make the world more just and decent is just what we need. It is up to us. To choose or not. Let’s all decide this year to make the right choice.

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