Choose and Treasure

Parashat Ki Tavo 2017

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Choose and Treasure

Judaism is the path of contradiction so that we may find unity. In few cases does the dialectical philosophy underlying Jewish thought become more apparent than in the ‘birkat havdalah’, the blessing of Havdalah in which we say ‘hamav’dil bein kodesh lechol, bein or le’choshech bein Yisra’el la’amim, bein yom hashivi’I lesheshet yemei ha’ma’aseh’ – ‘distinguishing between the sacred and the secular, between light and darkness, between the people Israel and others, between the seventh day and the six working days of the week.’

Siddur Sim Shalom pointedly translates ‘bein Yisrael la’amim’ as ‘between the people Israel and others’, fudging their translation, perhaps, on account of residual discomfort. Interestingly, Mishkan T’filah is more direct, rendering ‘bein Yisrael la’amim’ as ‘between Israel and the nations.’ The discomfort, however, is not without base – Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism did away with all references of particularist chosenness altogether from the Siddur.

When taken at face value, Judaism’s polarities can jar with our contemporary social norms and perceptions. Parashat Ki Tavo, introduces us to the concept of ‘Am Segulah’, the Chosen People.

V’Adonai he’emircha hayom lehi’ot lo am segulah ka’asher diber lecha…” – “And the Eternal has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people…”

At face value, this sounds triumphalist. Even an ‘ilui’, a brilliant scholar, like Mordecai Kaplan thought poorly enough of the concept to jettison it outright. As Tevye said in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ “We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?”

Still, if we trust to find a resolution to Judaism’s polarities, then we should trust in the other side of the equation. The verse continues “…v’lishmor kol mitzvotav, ul’tit’cha elyon al kol hagoyim asher asah lithilah ul’shem ultiferet vlihi’ot’cha am kodesh l’Adonai Eloheicha ka’asher diver.’ – ‘…who shall observe all His commandments, and that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Eternal your God.’ (Deut. 26 18-19).  

Does this resolution make us happy? Probably not. At least we may allay our moral conscience that promises of ‘fame and glory’ are conditional. The Prophet Amos brings this home when he says, “Rak etchem yadat mikol mishpechot ha’adamah, al ken efkod Aleichem et kol avonotam.” - "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins." (Amos 3:2). These verses, however, leave us ambivalent at best. Yes, it is true that our chosenness is conditional and surely this should inoculate us against the worst excesses of arrogance, but the question remains, for what end were we chosen? Any Jewish question is only answered by more questions (I’m convinced Jewish questions hide and breed in the dark). At least, our response can engender focus, a sense of who we are and where we want to go.

This is what we see in conjunction to Chapter 26, in Chapter 27. Chapter 27 presents us with a fascinating scenario. God tells Moses that as soon as the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, they are to set up large stones and inscribe upon them ‘ha’Torah ha’zot’, ‘this Torah’. It isn’t clear what the text means by that – does this refer to the entire Written Torah or to the Book of Deuteronomy (from a critical Biblical point of view, the latter seems likely) or even the next few chapters featuring the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy? We don’t know but it is evident from the text that the writing must be engraved on a high-contrast plastered surface. The Talmud deduces that words painted upon plaster would be far more legible than those carved in stone and interprets this to mean that the text should be written ‘b’shiv’im lashon’, in the seventy languages of the world. (Masechet Sotah 32a-b).

What does that mean, in the seventy languages of the world?

Seventy in Biblical and Rabbinic parlance is shorthand for a large if not infinite number, as in ‘all the languages of the world’. The modern equivalent would be to hook up the JPS Tanakh to Google Translate and advertising the website for all to see. To find such radical universalism at the heart of an intensely particularist text is startling but not unexpected with what we know about how Judaism embraces and resolves contradiction. Our tradition does not teach doctrines of chosenness and particularism for its own sake, but as a means to an end. Both unadulterated particularism and universalism are toxic and dangerous. The great philosophical innovation that Judaism brought to the world is the notion of ‘unity in diversity’. We can celebrate our unique identity and our distinct culture yet embrace our mission to bring our moral perspective to the world. We can cherish the heimishkeit of our boundaried community and still welcome newcomers to be part of us. We can still dream a dream of a human race at peace with itself while respecting and celebrating the unique gifts each culture brings.

What applies to Judaism as a whole also applies to our community. I’ve just spent my first week with my new community and apart from learning such essential tasks of how to lock up the building and configure my Google calendar, also started building relationships. ‘Am segulah’ translates much better as ‘treasured people’. Whereas chosenness evokes power and position, treasuredness evokes intimacy and relationship. We as a community may need to be in Chapter 26 for a while. We may need to choose and treasure each other. Build relationships, talk to each other, get to know the new rabbi (my door is always open, come make an appointment!), turn inwards and grow that connection. We may for a while have to identify our own needs and focus on bringing healing, meaning and inspiration to ourselves. We may have to continue the sacred work of living with our own differences and embracing that as strength. As the equation is recalibrated, we will find a new balance. Then we may find ourselves moving into Chapter 27. We may consider an outreach strategy to draw non-members in, increase our profile in Iowa City civic society and the local media. Engage in interfaith work and Tikkun Olam and contribute our unique wisdom and connection to the wider community.

The beauty of our tradition is its resilient diversity. We do not have to feel trapped in false dichotomies. We have options to shape a more meaningful Judaism to the rhythms that are right to our community and the individuals in it. What remains at the core is that we chose and treasure each other. Let us be each other’s ‘am segulah’. Once we do that, the rest will follow.


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