What Does “Chosen” Mean?

Eikev By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 7, 2004 / 5764 | Israel

Israel is the heart and soul of the Jewish people; it is the home of our nation. Over a very special ten days in July, I had the honor of teaching with the Jacksonville Federation’s Mission to Israel. Some eighty-five participants: fifty adults and thirty-five children, joined together to express solidarity with Israel. We witnessed first-hand the miracles of modern day Israel in the absorption of immigrants from arbah kanfot ha’aretz, the four corners of the world, and in the substantive educational programs designed to make the integration of young Ethiopian immigrants more nurturing and successful. Blessings were to be found everywhere – and most importantly, people are returning to the streets of Jerusalem. A sense of normalcy and hope is beginning to take root once again. And yet, as a people, we cannot only look at blessings. We are in need of being introspective – especially as we approach the season of teshuvah, the time of our return.

One of the most touching experiences for me on this journey, was standing in the Gan Yeladim, the pre-school, of Kibbutz K’far Giladi, a community just north of Kiryat Shemonah. As we were about to leave this beautiful throng of children, I began a conversation with one of the teachers who turned out to be from South Lebanon. She told me her story – that her family was part of the South Lebanese Army, a Christian militia, that assisted the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), during the many years of hostility in the region. When Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew unilaterally four years ago, the Lebanese Christians who had assisted the IDF were facing a potential massacre. And so, rightfully, Israel opened its borders to protect these people. Sadly, though, they have been lost in the ever-shifting sands of Israeli politics. The woman’s husband is unemployed; she is separated from the rest of her family in Lebanon with little hope of ever seeing them again. This story underscores the plight of not only Lebanese Christians in Israel, but more broadly, the plight of foreign workers in Israel, many of whom are from the Philippines and Thailand. It is imperative that Israel, and we as an international Jewish community, address the needs of the strangers in our midst. To ignore these individuals is to diminish the Jewish notion of chosenness and of being created in “the Image of God.”

Accordingly, our parashah this week, Parashat Eikev, reminds us that we were not given the Land of Israel because of our fine qualities or superiority as a people (a radical misunderstanding of the meaning of chosenness). Moses warns the people that once the Canaanites have been dispossessed from the land, they should not say, “the Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues.. It is not because of your righteousness and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness . and in order to fulfill the oath that the Lord made to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). All too often, many of us fall into the trap of thinking that we are superior simply by virtue of our association with the word, Israel. Chosenness, as ourparashah points out, is something that we must strive for continually. The Land of Israel and the name Israel must be continually earned. How can we earn such an honor?

Abraham Joshua Heschel answers our question when he defines the notion of biblical piety. He writes, “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God: He who oppresses the poor blasphemes his Maker, and she who is gracious to the needy honors God,” (Proverbs 14:31). As we approach this sacred time of teshuvah, returning and repentance, we can take Heschel’s teaching to heart in both our personal lives as individuals, and in our national life as a people. Strangers in our midst, here in America, in the Jewish and larger community, as well as in Israel, must be shown our favor. Only then will we truly be acting in the Divine Image.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.