from the heart of jerusalem

Finding our chosen-ness, 1 Shabbat at a time


The sun had long since set, dark clouds hid the stars, and the wind was howling off the Shouf mountain range in central Lebanon.

I had managed to quietly sing the Kabbalat Shabbat service while enroute to the ambush site, and even pray the evening service while in the staging ground, before giving my men a final inspection, but I had no idea what to do about Kiddush. In such situations we usually ate from our packs, one or two at a time, and we had a system to ensure that we didn’t make much noise, but I had never happened to find myself in this particular situation on a Friday night.

I had not thought it through in advance, so I had no wine with which to make Kiddush, and a wave of depression fell over me as I realized how far I was from where I really wished to be on a Friday night. Having come straight from a patrol to lay down this ambush, there were no candles lit, no Shabbat table laden with freshly baked challot and wine, and certainly, in the cold Lebanon night, no one was singing Shabbat songs.

My first sergeant, a Yemenite Jew, crawled over to me and I noticed a strange smile on his face, not the normal expression of a soldier lying in the bitter cold in Lebanon.

“Achi!” (My brother), he whispered. “Mah kara?” (What’s up?). “Atah nir’eh kol kach atzuv, mah zeh tzarich le’hiyot?” (You look so down, what’s the matter with you?).

“You know,” he continued, “we’re not ready to lay down this ambush; we haven’t finished all the preparations.” I was somewhat surprised, thinking I had been pretty thorough, but you learn quickly to listen to your men, especially your first sergeant.

“B’li kiddush, lo zazim!” (How can we move without making Kiddush?) he said with a smile.

It had become the custom in the battalion that every Friday night, before we ate, I would make Kiddush for the whole battalion, and all the guys would always kid me about it. It was only then I noticed he had crawled over with a canteen in his hand and, unscrewing the cap on the canteen, he told me he had no Kiddush cup, but promised me the Kiddush wine this week would be worth it. And together with seven other men in Israeli Army uniform, on a wind-swept hill in the middle of the night in Lebanon, we made Kiddush. 

I had never seen him with a kippah on his head, nor had I ever caught him with a pair of tefillin on his arm, but at that moment, for me, Moshe Biton was the holiest man in the world.

Kiddush is all about sanctifying the moment. It’s about elevating the mundane to a different place, and about how we can transform the ordinary every day to something incredible. But it also raises one of the most challenging questions we face as Jews. 

The climax of the Friday night Kiddush has us say, “Ki Vanu Vacharta Mikol Ha’Amim” (Because You have chosen us from amongst all the nations).

What does this mean?

Given that there are Jews from every racial background on the face of the earth, and that a walk through any street in Israel will find Jews from every nationality in the world speaking the same language, one would be hard-pressed to imagine that this idea is racist. Anyone who wants to be a Jew can join the club. (Though what that entails is far from simple, and involves, at the very least, defining what it means to be a Jew in the first place).

Still, something doesn’t seem right about the idea that we consider ourselves to be chosen above all the other peoples of the world. And inn fact, the sources make it clear that any person who lives an ethical life, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish, has a portion in the world to come (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13).

So what does it mean to be chosen? And what does this chosen-ness have to do with Shabbat? 

It would seem, that the ideal place to look, to make sense of this idea, would be that point in Jewish history where Hashem actually chose us as his people. And that’s something we find in this week’s portion, Yitro.

• • •

It was 3,200 years ago that G-d chose to give us this special book we call the Torah. This experience forms the basis for who we are and all that we have to share with the world. All of which raises a question.

If this experience, clearly the central piece of this week’s portion, is so significant, why is the portion named after Yitro, who is described in the opening remarks of the portion to be a “kohen Midyan,” a priest of Midyan? Why isn’t the portion named after Moshe, who received the Torah to begin with? (In fact, no portion is named after Moshe.)

When considering the idea of chosen-ness there are two critical questions:

First, did G-d choose us, or did we choose G-d? And second, what exactly are we chosen for?

In fact, before G-d chose us, we chose G-d. Abraham, alone in a world of pagan idolatry and immorality, was the first to consider the possibility that G-d wasn’t a part of the world, the world was a part of G-d.

Hashem created each of us. And just as each individual was created by G-d, so were all the nations of the world. And to the best of my knowledge, you will not find, in any Jewish source, that just because I am chosen, someone else isn’t chosen or that I am somehow better than anyone else.

In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is to be able to show your children that each is chosen, and special, while showing them that none is more special.

Maybe this is what this strange story of Yitro is doing here. Before we begin our very special chosen relationship with Hashem, we are taught that just because the Torah is truth, does not mean that truth is not to be found anywhere else.

To be chosen is a gift that Hashem gives me. Some of us are chosen to be musical, some artistic, some to be methodical, and some brilliant. Our challenge as individuals is to decide how we think Hashem chose us. And if I take the gifts Hashem has given me (which is how G-d chooses me) and transform them into a gift I give back to the world (how I choose G-d), then I am no longer a created object, I am a partner in creation.

If this is true for individuals, it is true for nations as well. Each people — Buddhists and Muslims, Catholics and Jews, French and English — has to figure out as a people how they arweree chosen (what special gifts they were given) and what we are chosen for. 

What are we, as a people, chosen for? What is our mission?

• • •

Judaism has been caught between the extremes of religious fanaticism on the one hand, and secular humanism on the other.

The religious fanatic believes, essentially, that G-d supersedes man, and that human beings are insignificant before G-d and, therefore, in the name of G-d, there is no limit to what we can do to man. As long as G-d lives, it does not matter if man dies.

The secular humanist believes that G-d is dead. And if we are not created in the image of G-d, then we are, in the end, created in the image of matter. And if we are matter, and random, then how long does it take before a man can become a bar of soap, or a lampshade?

Judaism offers the world the idea that man cannot be insignificant before G-d, because man comes from G-d, and is even an extension of G-d. Ultimately, Judaism suggests that the first place to look for G-d is in the person sitting next to me. Only when I realize that every person is created in the image of G-d, and that every human being is chosen, in his or her own special way, am I ready to realize that we each have a purpose.

This is why chosen-ness is such a central part of Shabbat, when I take time to consider what all the running around is all about. Shabbat is the island in time that allows me to consider who I really am, and why I am here. It is also the reason Shabbat is so connected to the idea of Jewish community — because together, our challenge is to rediscover what we as a people are doing here, and how we can use the special gifts we are given to make the world a better place.

Three thousand years ago Yitro, a Midianite priest, taught us that truth is truth, and that we all have our gifts. Maybe if we all, as Jews, learn to respect the one-ness and chosen-ness of others, we will be ready to appreciate the one-ness and chosen-ness we already have.