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Ki Tavo 5783           September 17, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     It is an unpleasant fact that if you want to have friends or create a business relationship with someone, you can never talk about politics or religion. These issues are too fraught with so much personal and passionate thinking that it is best to keep the conversation on safer and more generic topics. Everyone loves to talk about the weather. Everyone loves to talk about sports. But bring up the topic like voter suppression or what true faith is all about and watch the sparks fly.

     So, if you want to see some real sparks fly, try having lunch with your favorite non-Jew and bring up the topic of Jews being the Chosen People. This bit of Bible, found in our Parsha this week, has done more to damage Christian and Jewish relations than everything else except maybe a discussion about the divinity of Jesus. I am not recommending that anyone go out and destroy their friendships and Christian/Jewish relations by bringing up the topic. It is one of those discussions that will not go anywhere except to make everyone angry.

     But today we read parshat Ki Tavo and unless we are prepared to go through a list of really nasty things that can happen to the Jewish community if Jewish Law is ignored, I think there is something to discuss among ourselves about this whole issue of Jews being chosen. The relevant passages are just before the long section on blessings and curses. In Deuteronomy Chapter 26, starting with verse 16 we read: Your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed*this day that the Lord is your God, in whose ways you will walk, whose laws and commandments and rules you will observe, and whom you will obey. And has affirmed* this day that you are, as promised, God’s treasured people who shall observe all the divine 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 promised, a holy people to your God” (affirmed exact nuance of Heb. he’emarta uncertain)

     The Hebrew for “affirmed” is debated as to its meaning but I am more interested in the verse that proclaims we are God’s “treasured” people. That is the word “segula” that makes all this talk about being chosen possible. According to the Torah, we have a special relationship with God that no other people on the planet seem to have. If we were literalists about the Torah, we would have a fairly good case to set ourselves above all the other faiths in the world. To be sure, there are commentators who say just that. Yehuda Halevi in medieval Spain and the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi both see this passage referring to our racial or ethnic superiority over all other peoples. More modern thinkers, like Mordechai Kaplan who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and who is the philosophic founder of Reconstructionist Judaism thought that chosenness was not something that modern Jews should consider. Others just thought that it referred to our special place in history, not some God given medal that God presents to people who are Jewish.

     My friend and colleague, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein in Jerusalem gets into the weeds with this passage and while he is a bit geeky in the way he describes the Hebrew, there is a message hiding here that he subtly reveals. It is that pesky word, “he-emarta” that is causing all the trouble. He writes in his commentary on this week’s parsha, The key to understanding the intent of this passage rests on the verb “liha’amir,” the root of which is “alef mem resh,” familiar to us as the root of the word meaning “to say.” The form of the verb used here is unique, consequently its meaning is unclear. In the above translation, it is understood to be a more intensive way of expressing “to say.” Others translate it, according to its verb form (hiphil) to mean “to cause”.” 

     Is being a chosen people something that God has “said” or something God will “cause” to happen? It all depends on a word that appears nowhere else in the Torah, so it is hard to pin down an accurate meaning. All the confusion seems to revolve around how we translate that one verb. And yet, no matter how much we ponder he-emarta, either way, what is being referred to is an important relationship between God and the People of Israel. If we will faithfully obey the commandments, then God will be faithful in treating us as a treasured people. Our being “chosen” depends upon us choosing to be faithful to God’s commandments. It is not that God loves us so much that we were “chosen,” rather it is more like being in a committed relationship. Both sides have obligations. The love between God and Israel is strong because we choose to show that love by our commitment to the Torah.

     Rabbi Silverstein sees this relationship between God and Israel as a paradigm for what all our relationships with others should be about. He writes: “This understanding sheds new light on the significance of “chosenness” not only in how it reflects on the relationship of God with the children of Israel but also regarding our relationships with others. It teaches us the importance of reciprocity. If there is a special relationship between God and Israel, it is dependent on give and take; so, too, we should keep this in mind in our relationships with others. The bottom line for us to remember is that chosenness is not a free gift. It is a two-way street.”

     If there is anything that can break up a good relationship it is one party thinking that they are better than anyone else. That somehow it should be obvious that this person deserves more than anyone else. That somehow, the world owes them more just because they are special. Rabbi Silverstein is reminding us that this is delusional thinking.

     Jews are a special people to God only when we follow through on our commitments to God. We are given more than 600 commandments that we need to perform if we expect God to treat us any different from anyone else. I don’t pretend to speak for God. What God has in mind is way beyond my pay grade. But when we act on what we see in the Torah, certainly good things will follow.

     When it comes to relationships between people, these relationships are built on trust and reciprocity. I have my needs and you have your needs. If I help you with what you need then you will be inclined to help me with what I need. We can trust that another person will be there for us because we took the time to be there for them in the time of their crisis.

     I like to think about these relationships like a bank account. When we do something nice or needed on behalf of someone else, it is like putting credits in a bank that in our own difficult moments we can call upon that friend to be there for us. We should try to keep our account in balance. Each of us doing what we can to help our friends knowing that it will give our friends a reason to be there for us. But when we expect everyone to do things for us and not reciprocate later, then the account gets overdrawn. Soon our friends realize that no matter how many times they help us, we are never there when the tables are turned. We become unreliable friends and soon we have no friends at all.

     I don’t want everyone to go away thinking that every action we perform requires others to return the favor. This is not an example of human capitalism at work. What drives this reciprocity is the love and relationship we share with others. In order to have a friend, you need to be a friend. I remember my first week as the new rabbi in Birmingham, Alabama. I got a call that a long-time member of the synagogue was in the hospital and the prognosis was not good. I arrived at her hospital room and many of the most respected leaders of the synagogue were around her bed, offering her comfort and support. When they saw me, they left the room so I could have some private words with the patient. I looked at her and said, “You are a very special lady.” She shook her head, “Rabbi, you don’t even know me. You never even met me; how can you say such a thing to me?”  “Well, you are correct,” I said, “I don’t know you; we have just met. But I do know the people who were here just now visiting you. And if that is an example of the friends you have, you are indeed an incredibly special lady.” She looked hard at me and said, “OK, that was fair.” And so, we began a discussion on her health, on her religious questions and about God’s role in all that was happening.

     What does it mean to be a “treasured” friend? What does it mean to be a member of an exceptional group of friends. What does it mean to be chosen to be loved? If we want to build friendships that are more than shallow acquaintances, then we need to make those relationships a two-way street. We have to be dependable friends and when we do, we find that others will reliably show up when we need them. It is an indication of their love and respect.

     Take a long look at the people who have chosen to bring you into their lives. Whether it be family or friends or partners. What is it that makes you worthy of the relationship? What do you bring into the lives of others that made them choose you as a friend and to choose to be there for you? Love and relationship are strongest when the love and relationship are traveling a two-way street. The more you give, the more you get.

     If you want to strengthen your relationship with God in the new year that is coming, then what are you prepared to do to earn that relationship? What new mitzvot will you work on in the new year? We can’t force God to do anything. But we can open the pathway so that the love can flow both ways.

     If we want to strengthen our relationships with others in the coming years, what are we prepared to do to earn their love and commitment? What will we do for others in the new year? And while we can’t force someone to care about us, we can open the pathways so that trust and love can flow both ways.

     As we stand in doorway to a new year, may we earn God’s love and care every day with our spiritual actions, and may we earn the respect of our friends every day with our physical actions and may all that we do always be designed to make our world a more loving and peaceful place as we say …..

Amen and Shabbat Shalom



Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784