The voices that speak from the etched tablets Moses carried down Mt. Sinai harmonize in their dissonance. That is to say, what makes Judaism whole is our internal, intergenerational dialogue that values and canonizes multiple perspectives. Torah boldly models this by placing conflicting views side by side.
This week’s Torah portion and corresponding Haftorah offer a perfect case in point. Following what’s known as the Holiness Code in Parshah K’doshim, God speaks to the Israelites through Moses: “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” (Leviticus 20:26)
This echoes the special relationship God promises the Israelites just before receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai: “Now, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, then you shall be My treasured possession from among all peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Exodus 10:5)
These two verses are rooted in God’s internal reasoning in choosing Abraham as the first Jew: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity (that’s us!) to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” (Genesis 18:19) The divinely inspired biblical authors have laid the foundation for the now millennia-old belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people.
Personally, I love the distinctiveness of being Jewish. I take great pride that we, the Jewish people, albeit a mere 0.2% of the world’s population, have an impact far beyond our numbers in bringing out the best in humanity. Our special relationship with God is directly connected to what God requires of us — to love your neighbor as yourself, to treat all people as created in the image of God, to do what is right and just and to be caretakers of the earth.
What’s made me uncomfortable since I was a teenager is the notion that the Jewish people are elected, chosen from all the other peoples of the world; that the Jews have an exclusive relationship, no less than a marriage, with God.
My discomfort finds good company with the Haftorah (drawn from Nevi’im, the Book of Prophets) chosen to be read side by side with this week’s Torah portion. The prophet Amos, channeling God’s voice, says “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. Behold, the Lord God has His eye upon the sinful kingdom: I will wipe it off the face of the earth!”
First of all, it’s amazing to hear Amos respond to Moses with some 650 years between the Israelite prophets. Yet, more remarkable is the dissonance in God’s own voice, as channeled through the two prophets. Throughout the Five Books of Moses, God raises up the Israelites above all the other nations.
In this Haftorah, God sees the problem of putting the Israelites on a pedestal — now a misperception that must be cleared up. God pulls the pedestal out from under the Israelites, telling them in no uncertain terms, you are just like the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Arameans. Amos links the central biblical narrative of the Exodus with a caveat. Yes, God liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt — but not in order for them to raise themselves above the other nations and behave any way they wished.
The Jewish branch of the human family tree is created to model lives of holiness by embracing rituals that lead to ethical behavior. God’s disappointment is crushing. Amos brings a stunning rebuke to his brethren, living in the Land of Israel — God sees your sinful behavior, and with disgust now wants to wipe you out.
The biblical commentary Etz Hayim does not seek to remove the tension between the Torah portion and Haftorah, but rather to draw meaning from it. Amos’ “divine assertion…denies Israel’s uniqueness and asserts a fixed reality… Israel is a nation amongst nations and its history is similar to that of its neighbors… Israel must reflect deeply on its destiny and discover just how its unique covenantal path shapes its national-religious character. Then it will transform the triumphal assertion of uniqueness found in K’doshim into a new awareness of distinction and duty.
“Kept separate, K’doshim and this Haftorah’s lessons cancel each other’s truth concerning election; brought together, they revise one another reciprocally and suggest a more inward and humble theology of chosenness.”
May we, with this posture of humility, one people amongst other peoples of good faith, collectively bring forth a measure of peace and compassion, love and kindness, to a world parched for goodness. JN
Rabbi John A. Linder is the senior rabbi at Temple Solel.