William Norman Ewer, a British journalist, wrote: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.”
Ogden Nash, an American poet, replied: “It wasn't odd; the Jews chose God.”
Ogden Nash is correct. We chose God, and this choosing began with our forefather, Avraham, who lived in an age when most of humankind had lost the universal awareness of the One Creator of all life. Avraham sought to help humankind rediscover this awareness – to return to their spiritual roots. As the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis reveal, there was an awareness of the Unifying One at the very dawn of human history; however, this awareness began to decline as many people began to worship the various forces within creation as gods. Since they lost the consciousness of the One Source, they began to view the world as an arena of competing gods, with each people having its own god. Maimonides, in his classical work, the Mishneh Torah, describes how this new pagan ideology began to spread in the early era of human history:
“In the days of Enosh (before Noah), people made a serious mistake. The sages of this era erred, and Enosh himself was among those who erred. They considered that since God put stars and heavenly bodies in brilliant splendor above us to regulate life on earth and to be His first servants, then it is fitting to honor and glorify them...When they conceived this idea, they began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them - to obtain the Creator's favor, according to their corrupt notions. This was the root of idolatry...As time went on, the honored and revered Name of God was forgotten by humanity, vanished from their lips and hearts and was no longer known to them...The Creator of the universe was known to none, and recognized by none, save a few solitary individuals such as Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Shem, and Avere. The world moved on in this fashion until the ‘Pillar of the World’ - Avraham, our father - was born.” (The Laws Concerning Idolatry 1:1,2).
There is also a tradition that Shem and his great-grandson, Avere, established yeshivos - schools for spiritual study - where spiritual seekers could learn how to acknowledge and serve the One Creator of all life (Genesis Rabbah 63:6,10). Avraham, however, did not wait for people to seek the Creator at the yeshivos of Shem and Avere. Maimonides writes that he traveled from city to city and from country to country, in order to teach people how to acknowledge and serve the Compassionate Creator of the entire universe (ibid 1:3). He later settled in the Promised Land, where he proclaimed, “the Name of the Compassionate One, the God of the Universe” (Genesis 21:33).
Avraham publicly opposed the idolatry of his generation, for he saw that the deification of any fragment of creation can cause people to lose their consciousness of the unity and common origin of all creation. And through proclaiming the vision of the Unifying One, he helped people to rediscover their own unity. As the Midrash teaches: Abraham united all human beings (Genesis Rabbah 39:3).
The Midrash also teaches that Abraham taught the men, and Sarah taught the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14). A central message of their teaching was that human beings are created in the Divine image; thus, human beings are to emulate the ways of the Compassionate One. As we discussed in previous letters, Abraham and Sarah conveyed this loving message not only through words, but through deeds.
The Compassionate One promised that from Avraham and Sarah would emerge the people of the covenant. This chosen people were given the responsibility to serve as a living example of the Divine teachings and thereby inspire all the peoples. As recorded in our Sacred Scriptures, the chosen people did not always succeed in their task; nevertheless, they preserved the Divine teachings, and Christianity and Islam later adopted “some” of these teachings.
Christianity, however, added certain pagan ideas which were not in the true spirit of Avraham and Sarah’s message. For example, Avraham and Sarah taught people not to deify any aspect of creation, including a human being, yet Christianity deified Jesus. And while Avraham and Sarah taught people to pray directly to the Compassionate One, Christianity taught people that all prayers must go through the intermediary of Jesus.
Ironically, many of those who rediscovered God through the chosen people also persecuted the chosen people. And while they adopted certain teachings of the Torah, they ignored all the Torah teachings regarding God’s eternal covenant with Israel. The awareness of this irony led to the following alternative response to the statement, “How odd of God to choose the Jews”:
“But not so odd as those who choose a Jewish God, yet spurn the Jews.” (Attributed to Cecil Browne)
According to the following prophecy, humanity will eventually be cleansed of all impure ideas, and all the peoples will unite to serve the Compassionate One:
"For then I will change the nations to speak a pure language, so that they all will proclaim the Name of the Compassionate One and serve Him with a united resolve." (Zephaniah 3:9)
The God of Israel is therefore the God of all humankind, and in the following prophetic proclamation to our people, we are reminded of this universal truth:
“For your Master is your Maker - the Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation, is His Name; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; God of all the earth will He be called.” (Isaiah 54:5)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen