The Bible makes it clear that our ancestors considered themselves to have been chosen by God to be a holy people. For hundreds of years, we Jews, who inherited the covenant of Abraham, have been puzzled by the concept of being "chosen."
If God "chose" the Jews, why then have the Jews suffered so much? How can we reconcile the idea of election with the reality of anti-Semitism and the tragedy of Jewish history? Don't all peoples consider themselves to be the "apple of God's eye"?
Although these are difficult questions, they reveal a misunderstanding of the subtleties of the doctrine of being a chosen people.
When God chose Abraham, it was during an age when all the surrounding peoples considered that they, too, were chosen by their particular chief gods. The concept of being chosen includes, as its corollary, the notion that the people also chose.
Ancient pagans chose a god whom they wished to follow, even as the god "chose" them. Each person entered into a covenant or a contract with his or her particular god.
In the ancient world, there were two types of covenants. One was a treaty between equals. "You do this for me, and I, in return, will do this for you."
The second kind of covenant was a Suzerainty treaty, which was an agreement between those who were not equals, such as a sovereign and a servant. In a Suzerainty treaty, the sovereign will protect his or her subject in return for loyalty. But there was never an understanding that the two parties were equal.
The covenant between God and the Jewish people echoes the Suzerainty model. It stated that God would ensure the Jewish people's survival so long as we maintained our end of the bargain, which was to uphold the mitzvot.
All religions fancy themselves as "unique" unto God. Divine treaties were common. The difference between the Hebrews and their contemporaries was not that the Jews were chosen, and the other peoples were not. In fact, the Bible is full of references to the holy nature of other peoples as well.
"To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir." The difference between Israel and the Philistines was in the nature of the covenant that the Jewish people entered.
This covenant required continuous ethical conduct. It necessitated the following of the ritual mitzvot, which communicated Jewish traditions from one generation to the next. These laws were on a much higher ethical plane than those associated with the Canaanite gods Baal or Moloch. In truth, being chosen meant a heavier burden placed upon the Jewish people.
To be "chosen" was never intended to mean "better than." Deuteronomy 7:7 reads: "It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord has set His heart on you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples."
Quite the contrary, "chosen" means "different from." Jews were set apart to be, as Isaiah demanded, "a light unto the nations." Chosen does not mean privileged; it means responsible. There is a profound difference between the two.
In the end, the question "Are the Jews the chosen people?" can only be answered by the Jews of each generation — by and for themselves. We demonstrate our chosen nature by our ethical actions. We are chosen to be the special representatives of God — if we are in the vanguard of those who mediate God's qualities to the world around us.
Shavuot, which begins on the evening of June 8, celebrates this covenant, and our special responsibilities to God in the world. There is no more important task than that.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the religious leader of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.