I had the unique experience of growing up on a cattle farm about fifty miles outside of Buffalo. When my family members escaped to America from Germany, they went into the same profession they had before Hitler. That profession, known as “viehandler” or cattle dealers, required living in a rural, agricultural area which, unfortunately, meant that we were about forty miles from the nearest Jew.
Attending a public school of predominately Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist students meant that when I got into a fight or disagreement, epithets such as “kike,” “dirty Jew” and “Christ killer” were among some of the endearing names I was called in the heat of the moment.
Long before I learned the ma’amar Chazal that you discover one’s nature and true feelings when you encounter them b’koso, b’keeso u’b’ka’aso (literally, one’s cup [how he handles alcohol], one’s pocket [how he handles money] and one’s anger), my schoolyard experiences provided insight into how my peers and so-called “friends” really viewed Jews. One of the more interesting epithets was “chosen one.” I was quite often accused of religious elitism for being a member of the Chosen People. It wasn’t until years later that I understood the source and the true meaning of the term “the Chosen People.”
My peers and their parents assumed that the term “Chosen People” meant that Jews believe they are superior, a better race and are God’s favorite. It is not only misunderstood by gentiles, but very often Jews themselves have no inkling of what it means to be chosen by Hashem. With the exception of the Kuzari, almost all Rishonim (medieval scholars) make it very clear that every human being, Jew and gentile alike, is created in the Divine image. The term tzelem Elokim is ascribed to all of humanity—not just Jews. Every human being is created in God’s image (i.e., we were all created with an abstract intellect that enables us to perceive the knowledge of God through the prisms of physics and metaphysics). No human being is inherently better than any other human being. If that is the case, then what does it mean that Jews are the Am Hanivchar, the Chosen Nation?
Am Hanivchar means that we were chosen to engage in a mission. We were chosen by God, and in turn, we chose to partner with God in the mission of the transformation and perfection of humanity. All human beings have an obligation to lead a life of ethical monotheism, which is encapsulated in the covenant that God made with humanity. We refer to that covenant as the Seven Mitzvot Bnei Noach. The Jewish people, by adopting the covenant of the Torah and its 613 mitzvot, not only adopted a change in their lifestyle, but adopted a system and society of perfected ethical monotheism. The Jewish nation does not have its own perfection as the end goal and purpose of the covenant. That covenant demands that we are responsible for the destiny of all of humanity. On the one hand, this is an awesome responsibility, and on the other, it is the greatest opportunity that a human being can have, to be able to work and partner with his Creator.
Jews are often accused of being parochial because the Torah demands that we view fellow members of the covenantal community as our brothers and sisters. However, no one is as universal and has a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all of humanity like the Jew. The same Torah that demands a familial affinity insists upon responsibility for all of God’s creations—from a cherry tree to an overburdened ox to one’s fellow human being. When a Jew takes the concept of Am Hanivchar to heart, he or she looks at the world with a sense of breadth and perspective that transcends the trivial and small-minded mentality that so many people have. The responsibility and blessing of being a member of the Am Hanivchar creates a love, an appreciation and a concern for the welfare of one’s community, neighbor and society. It shapes our dreams, directs our energies and sensitizes us to the needs of others. This responsibility and opportunity of being a member of the Chosen People is not a cause for arrogance, but just the opposite—it engenders a profound sense of humility. Our mission, as God’s partners, is to create a world driven by ethical and moral principles and to develop a philosophical and theological perspective of humanity’s relationship to the reality of its own existence and its relationship to God. Even though the world has grown technologically, economically and scientifically in quantum leaps, we have a long way to go ethically, morally, philosophically and theologically. Unfortunately, humanity is light-years behind the previous stated areas of advancement.
Understanding our mission as the Am Hanivchar is crucial to its success. If we think of ourselves and conduct ourselves as superior, we will engender the kind of resentment and bitterness I faced as an adolescent in school, and worse, we will lose sight of the awesome responsibility we have to enlighten and elevate the nations of the world. We must always be mindful of our obligation to live a Godly life and set an example of goodness, decency and morality. Only then will our mission be fulfilled, and only then will we be worthy of having been chosen.