Ki Tavo — 5770 — The Chosen People

29/08/2010 at 10:45 Leave a comment

“The Chosen People”

Shabbat Ki Tavo

28 August 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a great sage wrote to one who had just chosen Judaism and was new to the customs and traditions.  This letter was in response to a question posed to the sage, asking how could he, one who was not born of Jewish parents could pray the words, Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu – my God and God of my ancestors — considering that technically this was not true.  This was an incredible struggle for the new member of the community – he knew what the Mishnah instructed already – that one who newly joins the Jewish community may participate in the rituals, however may not recite the declaration, ha’aretz asher nishba la’avoteinu – the land which God swore to our ancestors — what to do?

How could one question the guidance of this early rabbinic code, which was brought into the world around the year 220 CE?  Now it was about 800 years later and past the discussions on this Mishnah and many others – discussions known as Gemara and the Talmud – this idea was still in place.  One who chooses Judaism may participate, however wasn’t exactly equal – in the daily prayers and various declarations, it was painfully obvious that if you joined Judaism a bit later, you remained other – and this was causing discomfiture among the new community and disparity among the people.

And so, in an extraordinary act of compassion – a radical move that overturned the Mishnah and subsequent rabbinic discussion, this sage ruled that this poor petitioner should pray all the prayers as they are – without changing a word.  He based this not only on his own authority in the world at the time – the sage reminded all of the Jews in his letter that the first Jew, Abraham, was himself one who chose Judaism – moving from a worship of idols, to a life dedicated to pursuing God and in each generation, we are all people who consciously choose to do the same thing – to embrace the struggle, to think about, talk to, and wrestle with God in all of our ways. The sage reminded this man and all of us, that we are all Jews by choice, writing in the letter that we read 900 years later, that “Abraham is also your father as he is my father and in that important aspect there is no difference between you and me.”

So thereafter, although defying the instruction in the Mishnah, since the time of Maimonides, the sage who wrote the letter to the new Jew, Abdul-Alla in the 12th century – all of us who actively associate with the group known as the Jewish people share the same history and the same blessings and challenges give by a God in common.  We are together, past any reliance on bloodlines – who are the chosen people?  Those who have chosen to walk together – one who has chosen oneself to belong and a community comprised of worthy constituents who do not cast aspersions based on lineage and does not organize itself based on parentage and genetic hierarchy – we are all the chosen people, choosing ourselves to appear before God.

Following the thinking of Maimonides is a great blessing and gives all of us much responsibility – it is good to know that all of us belong and at the same time, his teaching gives us great challenge — none of us are off the hook, in just comfortably settling in and letting the decisions of our parents determine the ebb and flow of our life – we cannot rely on the choices of others to fill us up or give us meaning – we must take an activist stance – we must too choose Judaism at every moment, in every generation.

In our lives are there doubts, is there second-guessing?  Of course – and all of these complexities are part of our path.  It is the great privilege of one immersed on the walk as guided by our Jewish traditions to see that our struggles today were the struggles of many in the past – the lives of our predecessors preserved in our texts who cared so much to want to find their way in Judaism which at first glance, did not seem so equipped for welcoming.

In the Bible, we marvel at Ruth who says with a full heart to her mother-in-law – your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God – what would possess someone to make such a statement – to find a fresh belonging, to conquer fear of possible rejection and to take on something new – how can one be so determined to navigate the difficulties that a new chapter in life brings?  Where does truth lie for such an extraordinary person?

And all of us?  So after Maimonides we all have the same responsibility — we are all looking directly at a change – moving from the year 5770 to 5771 – a time to recommit to our lives and our choices – what will this upcoming year be like — what’s in it for us?  We can draw meaning out of this as we look to the Torah for guidance – recognizing that as Abraham is our common ancestor, too we all share another parent – one who did not come home, so to speak – one who is relentlessly lost out in the world – Arami oveid avi – my father was a wandering Aramean – this parent too is ours – one who wanders, unsettled – showing up here, just before the High Holydays and again, featured in the springtime Festival of Pesach. We recognize that as we choose Judaism, we are brought into an astonishingly rich universe, filled like Willy Wonka’s factory – and too, we are shown the desert, the place where Azazel resides – a  barren place where our legacy also roams.

There are two sides of Abraham – Abraham, as he was driven to enter a land replete with blessing and possibility – a land attached to history and living in community – and too, a wandering figure, destined to move nomadically from place to place – alone and essentially unattached.  As we recognize our status as  Abraham – as both insiders and outsiders — we can truly be up to the next direction as the Torah guides – simply and profoundly, to be happy – to rejoice in appreciation of all the goodness that our God has given us and our generations – we are to dance both with both of our parents – with Abraham and the wandering Aramean.  We are proud of belonging to an erev rav – a mixed multitude – and we can openly embrace our tradition as Maimonides guides – without reservation and with responsibility.

It is in this sense that we are the chosen people – placing ourselves in the center of a community that has the wisdom to continue to search carefully and admit openly, lovingly overturning fears that have been legislated into halacha and seriously engaged in what it means to be present before God.  I believe that together we can do anything, and as we turn our thoughts to our personal desires and hopes in the New Year – may we choose well and stand together, uplifted in the majesty of this kind of belonging – standing among like-minded and committed community.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Shoftim — 5770 — Towards the End of the Page Ha’azinu – 5771

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