Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Terumah 5763/ February 8, 2003
“The Chosen People—Under all Circumstances?
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner
The idea that G-d dwells amongst the Israelites is a fundamental one in the Bible, stated repeatedly: In today’s parasha, “That I may dwell among them” (Ex. 28:8), as well as “I will abide among the Israelites” (Ex. 29:45), “I will dwell in your midst” (Zech. 2:14-15), to cite but a few. Is G-d’s presence among us contingent upon our behavior, and is it likely to be cancelled if we are sinful? Two verses would seem to indicate that this reality is eternal and irrevocable: “I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel” (I Kings 6:13), “and I will dwell among them forever” (Ezek. 43:9).
We find the following polemic in Tractate Yoma 56b: “A Christian said to Rabbi Haninah: Now [since the Destruction] you [Jews] are surely impure, as attested by the scriptural verse, ‘Her uncleanness clings to her skirts’ (Lament. 1:9).” Said Rabbi Haninah to him, “Come and see what is written about them: ‘which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness’ (Lev. 16:16).” The simple meaning of the verse is that the Tent of Meeting resides amongst them, but R. Haninah took it to mean that the Divine Presence remains, even in the midst of their uncleanness. One of the theological tenets of Christianity is that Israel was chosen by G-d conditionally and their chosen status was revoked because of their sins. R. Haninah countered that this status was irrevocable.
R. Haninah’s expression to the Christian, “come and see (ta hazi),” occurs often in the Zohar, but is extremely rare in the gemara, where the more common expression is ta shema, literally “come and hear”, meaning “come and understand” things logically. Ta hazi denotes more of an intuitive inner illumination akin to seeing, and only occurs in the Babylonian Talmud eleven times. Perhaps this hints that the notion of the Jewish people being chosen contains an element of the mystical. Here, however we shall not delve into the occult, rather we shall explore the approach taken by Maimonides, the great Jewish rationalist, to the subject of Jewish chosenness
In Hilkhot Avodah Zarah (1.3), Maimonides set forth in detail how the Jewish people was formed:
[Abraham] informed everyone according to his intelligence so as to restore him to the path of truth… they were known as the men of the house of Abraham (Genesis 17:27). He implanted in their hearts this great principle of faith [monotheism], … and taught it to his son Isaac, who … conveyed it to Jacob, whom he ordained to teach the faith. He too kept teaching and exhorting all who joined him. Jacob instructed all his sons, setting apart Levi whom he appointed as head of an academy… He charged his sons to appoint instructors from the tribe of Levi in uninterrupted succession, that the traditional lore not be forgotten. And so it went on increasingly among the descendants of Jacob and their adherents until they became a nation knowing the Lord. The people of Israel stayed a long time in Egypt; they relapsed, learning the practices of their neighbors and worshiping idols, with the exception of the tribe of Levi that adhered to the heritage of the patriarchs. The tribe of Levi never worshiped idols… But owing to G-d’s love for us, and because He kept his solemn promise to Abraham our father, He appointed Moses to be the teacher of all the prophets and sent him to us. When Moses began to function as prophet, the Lord chose Israel as His heritage and adorned them with precepts, showing them the way of worshiping him…
In other words, the people of Israel were not chosen because of their merits, but because of the oath given to Abraham and because of G-d’s love of Israel, love which was unconditional. Israel was not chosen because of their observance of the commandments; on the contrary, commandments were given us because we were chosen.
Why, then, did the Lord choose us?
In Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides answered this as follows:
Thus it might be said: … Why did G-d give this Law to this particular nation, and why did He not legislate to the others? … The answer to all these questions is, so that it should be said: He wanted it this way; or His wisdom required it this way. And just as He brought the world into existence, having the form it has, when He wanted to, without our knowing His will with regard to this or in what respect there was wisdom in His particularizing the forms of the world and the time of its creation…
In other words, the Lord of the Universe is not subject to external; rather He determines what should be.
Can there be a change in the chosenness of the Jewish people?
In Iggeret Teiman (Mossad Harav Kook Publishing House) 128-129, Maimonides wrote:
Just as the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, cannot be made void, so too, it is impossible that we pass from the world, for He said: “For I am the Lord—I have not changed; and you are the children of Jacob—you have not ceased to be” (Malachi 3:6). Likewise, the Blessed One informed us that He refrains from rejecting us wholly, even though we anger Him and transgress His commandments, for it is written: “Thus said the Lord: If the heavens above could be measured, and the foundations of the earth below could be fathomed, only then would I reject all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done—declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:37).
In other words, just as the Lord of the Universe is eternal, so too the Jewish people is eternal, even if they sin.
Could the Jewish people be eternal yet change their nature? And what if these were only general words of comfort to the Jews of Yemen and not, heaven forefend, the truth?
According to Guide of the Perplexed (2.29), Maimonides’ holds the following view on the eternal nature of the Jewish people:
“For as the new heaven and the new earth which I will make shall endure by My will—declares the Lord, so shall your seed and your name endure” (Is. 66:22). For it sometimes happens that the seed remains while the name does not. Thus you can find many peoples that are indubitably the seed of Persia or Greece, but are not known as Greeks or Persians, having been absorbed in another religious community. This, to my mind, is likewise an indication of the eternity of the Torah, for we (the Jews) are still called by a special name.
The Jewish people will remain forever, both in seed — physical existence, and in name — spiritual existence, i.e., the Torah.
Does the Jewish people have a unique human nature, intrinsic to its being?
Maimonides answered this question in Iggeret Teiman (Mossad Harav Kook Publishing House), 129-130:
The progeny of Jacob are pure and clean, for they are unique and they are people whose ancestors stood on Mount Sinai and heard the Word from the Almighty, who embraced the Covenant in deed and faith, and undertook to uphold the tradition.
On the foundation laid by the patriarchs and the melting-pot of Egypt, the Theophany at Mount Sinai left its mark on the nature of the Jewish people, as it is written: “The Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai – their uncleanness ceased; idolaters, who did not stand at Mount Sinai – their uncleanness did not cease” (Yevamot 103b).
What is the nature of this people?
Maimonides related to this subject in several places:
In Iggeret Teiman 128 he said, “We shall never cease to be a righteous nation.”
Hilkhot Teshuvah (2.10) reads:
One must not show himself cruel by not accepting an apology; he should be easily pacified, and provoked with difficulty. When an offender asks his forgiveness, he should forgive wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit. Even if he has caused him much trouble wrongfully, he must not avenge himself, he must not bear a grudge. This is the way of the stock of Israel and their upright hearts. But idol worshipers, whose hearts are not circumcised, do not follow this way, rather their offenses are stored up for eternity.
Similarly in Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 19.17:
Whoever is brazen or cruel, and hates other people, not treating them kindly, is most suspect of being a Gibeonite, for the characteristics of the holy nation of Israel is that they are humble and kindly.
The description of Israel as kind-hearted and doing good goes back to Tractate Avot (5.20): “The shame-faced are for the Garden of Eden. May it be Thy will, O Eternal our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that Thy City be rebuilt speedily in our days and grant our portion in Thy Law.” What is the connection between one who is bashful and the rebuilding of the Temple? Maimonides, in his Commentary to the Mishnah explains:
G-d already dealt kindly to this people, namely Israel, by giving them the quality of being shy, for we find that the good characteristics of the progeny of Abraham is that they are bashful, merciful, and charitable… It is as if he said, after having described the virtue of being shame-faced: G-d, just as You bestowed this virtue on us, so too may You have mercy on us and build Your City speedily in our day.
Therefore Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Matanot Evyonim (1-2):
We must observe the precept of tzedakah (charity) more carefully than any other affirmative command, because charity is characteristic of an upright person, the offspring of our father Abraham... If anyone is cruel and shows no mercy, there is reason to suspect his lineage. Cruelty is to be found only among the heathen, as it is said: “They are cruel, they show no mercy” (Jer. 50:42).
Similarly, in Hilkhot Avadim (9.8):
The progeny of our father Abraham, however, the people of Israel upon whom G-d bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to keep the laws of goodness, are merciful toward all creatures.
In conclusion, according to Maimonides, every human being was created in the image of G-d (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4.8), but at the same time the Jewish people as a whole have a unique nature. True, any one of us can reject these characteristics by dint of our free choice, but the Lord of the Universe commands us to be true to this nature whose prime characteristic is to be kindhearted.