August 26, 2011

Can we be God’s “Treasured People?”

Several times in the Tanakh (referred to by many as the Hebrew Bible) the people of Israelare referred to as God’s am segulah, “treasured people.”

In the third month after their liberation from Egypt, Moses climbs Mount Sinai.  There, according to Exodus 19:4-6, God tells Moses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.  Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My am segulah, ‘treasured possession,’ among all the peoples.”

In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Re’eh, Moses declares to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 14:2 that “You are a people consecrated to Adonai your God: Adonai your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth be God’s treasured people, am segulah.”

There are a few other examples in the Tanakh in which we are referred to as am segulah.  So, clearly the idea of the people of Israel as a “chosen people” is central to Jewish faith.  Yet, what does this assertion mean? How does the Torah understand it?  How has it been interpreted throughout our history and how should we interpret it today?

The majority of Jewish commentators seem to agree that the Jewish people in its covenant with God sensed that their relationship was more than self-serving.  They bore the unusual task or burden of being God’s instrument for extending truth, justice, righteousness, compassion, and peace on earth among all peoples.  The awareness of this responsibility grew in them. The idea is that we have become conscious of our role, but not superior.  The rabbis believed that being an am segulah means that the people of Israel must measure its existence by the values and demands of Judaism.  To be chosen by God means to be responsible, not only for your own survival, but for the survival of all peoples.

I constantly struggle with this notion of what the meaning of being an am segulah, a “treasured people” of God is for us today.  It leads to the larger question of what is the purpose of our Jewish existence.  Why did God put us here?

Of course, I would love to believe that as Jews, we have been put here to be responsible for the entire world.  I believe we strive to do this with our Tikkun Olam and social justice efforts.  However, I ponder whether this is enough to warrant the distinction of being the treasured/chosen people.

Modern philosopher Martin Buber calls the Jewish people a unique people molded by our history and by a great inner transformation through which we become an anointed kingdom representing God.  I believe it is through our history and our shared experience that we as a Jewish people and our congregation can confront these ancient ideas and issues and attempt to better understand what our responsibilities are in this world.

This Shabbat, take a moment, as we continue our preparation for Rosh Hashanah, to think about how each of us can do more to help the world we live in and prove that we deserve the title of am segulah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham