Manage episode 300991869 series 1296520
parshat ki tavo (Deuteronomy 26) a recording of a discussion between Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz on Clubhouse as they explore the roots of the concept of the Chosen People looking at the Favored sons and wives of Genesis and at the concept of Covenant and antecedent Hittite suzerainty treaties. Join us as we ask whether Tevya was right and should God choose someone else for a change?
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/343219
Geoffrey Stern 00:00
This is Madlik, and we do disruptive Torah, which means that we look at one specific verse or thought in the weekly portion, and maybe look at it with new eyes, new lenses, and maybe taking it in a new direction that's not totally traditional, or that is not the one that we all grew up with. But today, I'm hoping to be very interactive, because the subject matter today cuts to the core of the Jewish project. And that is this question of being a chosen people. And my guess is that whether personally, or as a part of the Jewish people, all of us have, in one way or the other had to address what it means to be chosen, and therefore should have an opinion, on what chosen is, and and that opinion can go all the way from, it's a wonderful thing to it's probably the worst idea that we ever had. And I think Tevya summed it up very well, as he many times does. And he turned to God and he said, "Dear God, couldn't you choose someone else for a change?", because he understood the dark side of being chosen. But in any case, we begin on Deuteronomy, chapter 26: 18-19. And what will be surprising is how rare it is, for Chosenness, to even be mentioned. So it says, and the Lord has affirmed this day that you are as he promised you, his treasured people, "Am Segula", 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 Lord your God." So in this one verse, we have this rare mention of "Am Segula", and I'll explain how rare it is. It only occurs in four other verses in the five books of Moses, we have a linkage to observing the commandment. So there's an obligatory aspect of being chosen. And then to us moderns, I think we have the most challenging part of being chosen. And that is that he will set you in fame and renown and glory high above all the nations. And that is the triumphalism, the exclusionism, of what it means to be chosen. And then it finishes and says that you will be a holy people. So I'm going to start with you, Rabbi.
Adam Mintz 02:58
So thank you, Geoffrey. It's a great topic. And I wonder about the relationship between being chosen, and being holy, the Torah tell us in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), that we should be holy, "Kidoshim Tehiyu" . And the question is, does God choose us because we're holy? Or does God choose us, in spite of the fact that we're not always holy? Now, first of all, I think we need to break this down an to say, what does it mean to be holy? Rashi says, on the verse that says we should be holy, holy means to be separate Holy means to recognize that we're not like everybody else. We don't do like everybody else all the time. Sometimes we have to be different. We need to be holy, we need to be seperate. But what's interesting, and this is an idea that's emphasized on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is the idea of the promise that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that promises that even though you're not always holy, even though you're not always going to do the right thing, I have chosen you to be my people. I have chosen you to be my people in good times and bad times. In return for that, you choose me to be your God. So I think I'd like to talk about that today. And that's the idea. Does God choose us even when we don't deserve to be chosen? And I think what's amazing about the story is if you read the Torah, that seems to be that God chooses us even if we don't actually deserve to be chosen.
Geoffrey Stern 04:44
Well, that is certainly going to come out today as we explore the sources. But certainly, whether we are distinct because we are holy or we are distinct because we are better none the less inherent in the idea of this chosen people is in fact that we are different in some way. And that we should take that as somehow either a compliment or an obligation. So I said that it's mentioned just very few times in the Bible, in Exodus 19. It says, "Now, if you obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession, "Li Segula" among all the peoples, indeed, all the earth is mine." So here we have another element to this concept of being a chosen people. And that is this concept of a covenant. You know, a covenant is a legal term. It's between two parties, and it has certain conditions. And again, it means that as you were saying, and you raise this question of not always being holy, I would add to that, the question of not yet being holy meaning to say, is this choseness, is this part of developing relationship? Is it a reward? Is it kind of like, seeing the potential, and all of these things are going to come up today, as we kind of look at the sources, before we delve into the sources, the other two times that "Am Segula" is mentioned are both in Deuteronomy. And it's one of these unique occurrences that doesn't happen very often, where the same verse is word for word, verbatim, repeated twice. It says, "for you are people consecrated to the Lord your God of all the peoples on earth, the Lord your God chose you to be his treasured people." And the only other time that I can recall that we have word for word, the same kind of formula repeated is the 10 commandments. And so it kind of ties into this concept of a treaty of a covenant of a Brit. And so what we're going to do today is actually indulge me into two different ways of looking at this chosen people that have always intrigued me. One is looking at the story of Genesis. You could read Genesis from the beginning till the end, and say, This is a book about show choosing, choosing one son over another, choosing one wife over another, it is all a narrative, all of the complex kind of soap opera type of drama, is all caused by the same dynamic that we run into when we talk about our chosen people. So I always was thinking that's where I would look. And I was hoping someone would write a book. And lo and behold, I did a search. And someone wrote a book exactly on that subject, which is to use the concept of election and choseness in the narrative of Genesis as an insight into what actually it means to be chosen. And the other thing that I was exposed to maybe 30, 40 years ago, is they discovered these Hittite treaties between the king and his vassals. And they saw that they resembled very much the kind of Brit or covenant ceremony that we have in the Bible. And the question was, how did they bare light on this whole concept of being chosen? So with your permission, what I'd love to do is to start looking at Genesis from a totally new perspective. And we're doing that to a large degree, the writings of a guy named Joel Kaminsky at Smith College, and he wrote a book in 2007 called "Yet I love Jacob, we're claiming the biblical concept of election". So the first drama that we get in in Genesis is Cain and Abel. And you all know this story. Cain is the older Abel is the younger, Abel brings a sacrifice of meat because he is a herder. And Abel brings a sacrifice of vegitation and wheat because he is a farmer, and God accepts the sacrifice of Abel of the meat, and doesn't accept or rejects the sacrifice of Cain. And of course, the first thing that we know is based on our prior weeks of discussion where we see the Bible has a real good bias for vegetarianism over meat is we would have thought God would have made a different decision. So maybe the first takeaway as we look at how God chooses is that "Strange are the ways of the Lord" , you never know what's gonna determine a Divine choice. The second thing that happens is those of you who have read the story know that Abel is not a big part of the story. The dialogue is with Cain, who after his sacrifice is rejected. God speaks to him and says, you know, don't, don't don't be concerned about this. You know, it's okay. He realizes that Cain's face has dropped, and the focus on the first election in the Bible is not on the chosen, it's on the unchosen, and that is fascinating. And then of course, we know that Cain kills Abel does a terrible sin, genocide, if you will, because there are only two people on the earth in those days, besides Adam and Eve, and maybe Seth, and he does not get therefore the blessing of Divine Will, and having God looked down upon him favorably, but the dialogue continues. He's a wanderer. He says to God, God, they're going to kill me. So again, it is rather strange or illuminating. That the first instance of God choosing someone, the narrative focuses more on the one that was not chosen than the one that was chosen. Have you ever thought about that? I had never thought about that rabbi.
Adam Mintz 11:52
So I want to tell you, Geoffrey, that is an amazing idea. I have never thought about that. I mean, of course, it's right there. It's obvious. But what does that mean? That God focuses on the unchosen God focuses on giving the unchosen a chance. I mean, if you want to be dramatic about it, Geoffrey, you wonder if Cain had given a different answer. Maybe he would have been saved somehow. And we wouldn't have had the story the way we haven't. Maybe God was giving him a chance, now in the end, he didn't observe it, and he killed Abel and that was the end of it. But maybe God has the conversation with the unchosen, because the unchosen is the one who needs the help. Abel didn't need the help. He was he was okay, he was covered, Cain needed to help.
Geoffrey Stern 12:45
Absolutely. And of course, and we're gonna see more of this later. We cannot but ignore the fact that Abel was not the first born. We always say Cain and Abel. That's because Cain was the firstborn. And in God's first choice, he picked, not the obvious, not following the rule of primogeniture. And he picked the second son. And to me, I never thought of Cain and Abel as the first election story. Michael, I'd love to hear your comment.
Michael Posnik 13:31
As always, as always, a Hiddush (novel interpretation) somewhere in there, but I do have a question. Is this the very first time we encounter death in the TaNaCH (The Biblical Canon)? It seems as I recall, there's no other moment of death. And I remember a theater piece that George Henkin did a long time ago, when Cain and Abel are wrestling, and Cain kills Abel, but doesn't know what he's done. He tries to shake him awake, he tries to lift him up. But we don't have death yet in the TaNaCH. So that's all.
Geoffrey Stern 14:08
I think that's a great insight. I mean, we had death as a hypothetical we had, if you eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, you will die. And we have the curse of death. But this is probably the first instance of actual death. Would you agree Rabbi?
Adam Mintz 14:26
There's no question that that's right. I mean, the question is, what do you make of that? I mean, that of course is right. Now what's the "therefore" Michael? This is the first incidence of death. I mean, we learn a lot from the first instance of death. Let me say it another way. It's fascinating that the Torah doesn't wait very long to talk to give us a death story. Chapter 3. It's already at the beginning. You have the story of the of the expulsion from The Garden of Eden. There's not going to be death in the Garden of Eden because the Garden of Eden is perfection. So actually, if you want to take it this way, Geoffrey, the very first story in the Torah is the story of death is the story of killing, Man leaves the Garden of Eden and they kill ... and there's death.
Geoffrey Stern 15:21
So I'd like to add to that, and I think it's a really insightful insight is that not only does death first come up, but death first comes up as a result of a choice and a choice (favoritism) made by God, if you will, and so, you know, my first inclination is, this whole concept of a chosen people really does suck.... Aren't we all loved in the in the eyes of God,... so forth and so on. And I have to say that some of the traditional commentaries, even say the same thing, if you look at the Seforno on Deuteronomy our verse. "it says, to be a treasured nation, so that he may achieve with you what he hoped to achieve with mankind, when He created man saying, Let us make man in our image." This Seforno to me is brilliant, because it does say that the ultimate goal had actually been not to make a choice, that everybody's beautiful in his own way or her own way. But nonetheless, the second you start making choices, you start getting jealousy. And in the extreme, you have death. So let's go to the next story that this book brings up, which also includes death. And it's the story of Ishmael and Isaac, or Hagar and Sarah. And in two weeks time are going to be in synagogue or zooming in and listening to the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashannah, and it's hard to believe, but the first Torah reading that we read, on the first of the ten holliest days of our calendar, is about, again, the rejected son. It's about Sarah kicking out Hagar, and her son is Ishamel she's threatened by them, because she feels that her son is the chosen one. And this story then takes the point of view of Hagar, and Ishmael and Ishmael is about to die of thirst. And then God goes ahead and saves him and blesses him. So it is again. it's so illustrative that in the second big story of choseness, we have, again, the concepts of life or death. And I should have mentioned that we have a new theme here. And the new theme here is, you could say it's a difficult consummation, it's a difficult birth. Or you could say it's a miraculous birth. So Sarah, and Abraham, who are the chosen are having difficulty bringing a child in, they have their firstborn son, Ishmael through a maidservant named Hagar. And then they believe that it is Isaac, who's the fully chosen one. So you have this concept. And I once heard that there was an adoption agency for a Jewish children, and it was called Chosen Children. And whether it's true or not, it's an amazing name. Because I think part of this theme is that if you are born miraculously, or if you survive a death defying moment, whether it's being thirsty, as Ishmael survived, or Isaac almost being slaughtered in the binding of Issac The Akedah, in a sense, you belong to God. And so you are an adopted child. But again, we have this sense that if you are chosen, coming with it comes a lot of pain and struggle. I just love the way this book and I encourage any of you who are interested in tracing these concepts to get it. But again, these themes come up over and over again, in all the future themes. We're going to have this question of a difficult or miraculous birth, we're going to have the sense of the one who is not chosen is nonetheless blessed in his or her own way. And we have the sense being chosen isn't a walk in the park. It's difficult for all concerned.
Adam Mintz 20:07
I mean, let's let's, let me take your last point first. And that is the fact that choseness is difficult, choseness is opportunity. But choseness is also obligation. And I think that's really the point you're making. And that's a huge point. You started the half hour with a discussion of Tevya. You know, "couldn't you choose somebody else", he understood that being chosen is obligation. I'll just tell you something. When you convert somebody to Judaism, the way the conversion process works is that the conversion candidate studies all the laws or many of the laws, then you take the conversion candidate to the mikvah, and you kind of give them a kind of formal test. And then they get ready to go into the mikvah. And the very last thing that you say to the conversion candidate, before they go into the mikvah before they become Jewish, what you say is, you should know that you're now joining a chosen people, and being chosen has a lot of responsibilities. And not everybody in the world understands and appreciates the fact that we're chosen. It's always struck me that that's what we tell the Convert at the last minute.
Geoffrey Stern 21:35
And of course, the Convert is literally choosing to be a part of our people.
Adam Mintz 21:42
In spite of the fact that choseness is a challenge.
Geoffrey Stern 21:49
One of the ideas that I was thinking of is, is choseness a choice, and certainly in the sense of a convert, they are choosing to be part of our chosen community. You know, you can't help but realize when we talk about Ishmael, that we on the first day of Rosh Hashannah are going to be hearing his story, and not the story of Isaac. But there are billions of followers of Islam, who actually believe that Ishmael was the son who was taken by Abraham to the binding, and they substitute Ishmael for Isaac. So it seems to me that one of the questions that is raised in my head is; Is this our narrative of being chosen, and are others are permitted and almost encouraged to have their own narratives of being chosen? But certainly whether you answer that question in the affirmative or not, even in our own tradition, we've had two instances. So far, we're the one who has not chosen almost becomes the center point of the story, at least that part of the story that we've looked at, which to me is just absolutely fascinating. So let's move on to the next story. And that is Jacob and Esau. And here, unlike the previous story, where you had two mothers, you had Hagar and Sarah, and I should say that this concept of choseness is known to disrupt people, so that maybe Ishmael and Isaac did not have the best relationship. But we can't but realize that it spilled over to their mothers who didn't have a good relationship. This choseness tears families apart. Now we get to Jacob and Esau, and we have a single mother with twins in her womb. And in Genesis 25. It says, "and the Lord answered her two nations are in your womb, to separate people shall issue from your body, one shall be mightier than the other. And the older shall serve the younger." So if we thought that there was a trend and from two episodes, you can't have a trend yet. But if we started to sense that Cain and Abel, it was Abel, who was picked, he was the underdog. He was the second born. In the story of Isaac and Ishmael Isaac was the second born. Now we have the Bible actually say it, that it is going to be Jacob, who is the second born, who will rule over the older. And this choice by God is very disruptive. And it is disruptive in the sense that it goes against the traditions, the concepts, the assumptions of the ancient Near East, and even our own Bible were in Deuteronomy 21. It says if you have two sons from two wives, and One is loved and one is not, "he must accept the firstborn, the son of the unloved one, and a lot to him a double portion of all he possesses." So the choices that God and His agents are making in Genesis are flaunting the assumptions and the norms of the ancient Near East. And in that sense, we have a new element to choseness. And that is a sense of radicalism.
Adam Mintz 25:32
I love that. I love that idea. radicalism. Choseness is radicalism, because of the way that it developed. Let's just again, take a step back choseness doesn't have to be radical, because it could be that the older one is chosen. But the way the Torah represents it, the older one is never chosen, you're chosen on merit, not on birth order. And that is radical in the Torah. And you're absolutely right, Geoffrey the Torah wants that to be radical. The Torah wants you to sit up straight and say, Wow, the Torah is breaking the rules. And it might be what you quoted from last week's parsha, that if you have two wives, and you have to still respect the son of the older son that's a technicality. That's in laws of inheritance. But what they talk about in the book of Genesis is not the laws of inheritance. That's really the concept of who's gonna continue the Jewish people. And that was not based on birth order that was based on merit. And the Torah is very radical, that the younger one seems to always merit. By the way, it doesn't end in Genesis, Moses is the one who merits to be the leader, even though clearly Aaron is the older one. And Aaron doesn't get it, Aaron gets a consolation prize. He is the high priest, but he's not the leader of the Jewish people.
Geoffrey Stern 27:13
We're so engrossed in this conversation, the minutes are running by, but I would like to pose and this I have not seen in writing. And so in a sense, this is a little bit original. But we always think the opposite of chosen, this is not being chosen (rejected). And I would like to suggest that the opposite of being chosen, is being entitled. And I think the adopted child is the best example that one could pick. The idea that the firstborn, and that is whether it's the firstborn in a family, or it's an established hierarchy of class or nobility, that they are entitled to have (power) certain things. The fact that the Bible shows an absolute bias, and it's outspoken. It goes all the way through Joseph's story... Joseph is the son of Rachel, Rachel is the daughter of Laben. She's the second born daughter, this doesn't only refer to men, when Jacob picks her And Laban switches the vail, Laban winks at Jacob the next morning and says, We don't do things that way. Here. We honor the firstborn. Jacob was rejecting the first born when he picked Rachel, Jacob, who loved Joseph was loving the youngest over over Judah. So this is a rejection of the entitlement, and an embrace of and I won't say someone who deserves it, and that's where we get to the crux of the message, and we're running out of time. So I'd love to talk about the Joseph's story a little bit. It's very clear in Joseph that when he is young, not only does his father make a mistake in picking him and giving him this beautiful toy of a wonderful multicolored coat, but he doesn't understand what it is to have certain powers, certain abilities. He taunts his brothers with his dreams, you will bow down to me he is an immature chosen person, and his brothers are no less immature by selling him. He goes on to Egypt. And again, he's chosen .... this guy is on the make, he's going to rise to the top. And it's only after he's in jail, that he's called on to interpret a dream for the first time, does he say, and God has given me this ability, and he's gotten the humility. So I think we learned from this part of the story That, in fact, being chosen is as much of a challenge, is as much of seeing the potential that one needs to pick. And I will say that part of it has to be choosing to be chosen. And that's where I kind of want to end and I'm happy to extend our conversation. But these Hittite treaties that I referenced earlier on, were between the main King, and a bunch of different vassals, and they sounded very much like our 10 commandments, because they start by the king saying, I did this for your parents, and I took you from here, and I brought you to here, and therefore you have to be loyal to me. And what the radical difference .... we've used this term already today, with the covenant of being chosen, is that God gets rid of the ruling class, and he doesn't pick another king. And we've discussed this before he picks the children of Israel. And he says to each person, I have this relationship with you. And that, I think, is what was radical about the choseness and the covenant that we see. And in fact, this whole concept of being chosen? Is it a difficult concept? Yes. Is it one that comes chock full of suffering? Absolutely. But I'd like to say that, to my mind, the idea of being chosen is the idea of not being entitled, The idea that if you choose to be part of our movement, and it was a movement of unaffiliated "apiru", which became "ivrim" who came into the land of Canaan, who rejected all of the ruling class, and decided to make a new society, if you choose to join us, you are chosen. And if you choose to live by the old rules of entitlement and class, then maybe you're going to have your own blessings. But the blessings of this choseness are unique. And that's kind of what I come away with. It's a very challenging concept. It's one that we can debate forever. But it's also one that is chock full of ideas that that relate to all of us who have families, who have sibling rivalries, .... it's very grounded in real life.
Adam Mintz 32:27
Thank you, Geoffrey. I think that's great. I'll just add one little point and that is, and even when you choose to be chosen, the road is bumpy. And Joseph is the best example of that. Nothing is simple, right? The decision to be chosen is difficult. And then the road of choseness is difficult. This was a great topic. It's a great topic before Rosh Hashannah. We look forward to seeing everybody we still can get it one more Shabbat before Rosh Hashannah. So next week, "Nitzavim" have a great Shabbat Have a great week, everybody enjoy the last week of summer. And we look forward to see you next Friday.
Geoffrey Stern 33:03
Anyone who wants to stay on and continue the discussion are welcome to do so. But this was very special, I hope you all enjoyed. And that each in your own way will choose to be chosen and to choose and empower others as well. As we go into Shabbat, the only thing that I will add is that the blessing that we say over our children on Friday night is the blessing that that Jacob made to Joseph's two children, Ephraim and Menasheh And to the form, he moved his hands in two different directions. And he put his right hand on the youngest son, and true to form Joseph said to him, Hey, Dad, that's not the way we do things. And the real reason I believe that we make the blessing on Menasheh and Ephraim on Friday night is number one, it's a blessing from grandparents to their grandchildren. And when you bless your grandchildren, you know that the continuity of some of the ideas that you hold, near have a future. but also, we have no record of Ephraim and Menasheh so in a sense, it is a little bit of the resolution of the whole challenge of choseness, that here were two brothers. Clearly one had different talents than the other. One got the main blessing, the other got another blessing, but they all live together and at the end of the day, that I think is the biggest challenge of being chosen. Shabbat Shalom.