As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.
At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:
“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”
In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.
So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?
Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.
I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.
“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”
We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.
Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.
Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest. Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.
I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
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With the recent violence and escalation in the Middle East, my mind is on Israel. With every report of a rocket falling or a siren blaring, my heart skips a beat. It’s so close to home.
I spent last year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, while living in Jerusalem. I have close friends and family in Israel right now, and feel a deep sense of sadness and worry for what they are living through.
And my friends are not all Israeli.
While in Israel, I volunteered with organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Encounter. These experiences led me to make meaningful connections with young Palestinians living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. I want to tell you about one of my friends. I want to share her story, because I believe that it’s important to make room for voices to be heard.
Haya and I met about six months ago, when I participated in an Encounter trip to the West Bank. She was speaking on a panel, and talked about the politics of being a young woman living in Hebron. We chatted for a while after the panel, a little about politics but mostly about college and Miley Cyrus. Haya is currently studying English literature at the University of Hebron.
I visited Haya a few times after we met. She showed me around Hebron, and her University. I met her friends and she took me to her favorite shops in town. When I heard news that the IDF was looking for the men that abducted and killed three young yeshiva students in and around Hebron, I reached out to her. I heard several reports of house demolitions, road blocks, curfews, and so on, but I wasn’t really certain what was happening on the ground.
She lives in a suburb of Hebron, so I didn’t really think anything would be bad in her immediate proximity. Her family is middle-class, and they are all peace activists. Her parents came to the same discussion I met Haya at, and stayed for dinner after. Her father, a small and joyful man, asked me if I had any Palestinian friends in Jerusalem. I told him no. Immediately, brimming with excitement, he responded, “Now you have one!”
So as this latest escalation of tensions began, I texted Haya: “Are you okay?”
All she responded, after moments of typing back was, “Not really.”
I pushed her: “What’s going on?”
“There are settlers and soldiers everywhere. They closed all the entrances and exits.” She was confined to her house. Then after moments of silence, she added, “It’s going to be a tough night.”
She continued to tell me about how the soldiers searched her neighbor’s house, that they were searching all the houses in the neighborhood, that hers was probably next. That she was afraid. Then the tear gas came and she described the smell to me, and how even though she was inside the smell was so strong. She said, “I hate it.”
I tried to imagine smelling tear gas in my own home. I cringed. I couldn’t really imagine it.
Haya and I are a similar age, have the same taste in music, watch the same TV shows, have friends in common. Yet we are worlds apart. I listened as she told me about the soldiers that would forcefully enter her house and ransack it. I tried to imagine what that would feel like. As we work towards a better future, one filled with peace and lovingkindness, we must reach out to those unknown to us and listen to their stories attentively. We must share our own in return. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Could a greater miracle take place than or us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”
This notion is a Jewish one, too. Pirkei Avot 6:5 teaches us “Torah is acquired by means of 48 qualities [including] attentive listening, articulate speech, intuitive understanding…deliberation… asking and answering, listening, and contributing to the discussion.” As we continue to pray for the safety of friends and family in Israel, it’s important to remain open to hearing personal narratives. These stories are what help make the events “real,” and allow us to see the real life people impacted by conflict on a daily basis.
Let us listen to these narratives, value these friendships, and pray for peace for everyone. Everyone.
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This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.