SHABUOT: What does it mean to be Jewish?


ועתה, אם-שמוע תשמעו בקולי, ושמרתם

את-בריתי – והייתם לי סגולה מכל-העמים

כי-לי כל-הארץ ואתם תהיו-לי ממלכת

כוהנים, וגוי קדוש

“And now, if you will listen to My commands and keep My covenant , you will become a treasure to Me (segula) among all peoples … and you will be to Me a kingdom of priests (mamlekhet kohanim)  and a holy nation (goy qadosh). ”  Shemot 19: 5-6

In Shabu’ot we celebrate our assignment as God’s Chosen People.  As such, we established a “pact” with God. The document that records the description and terms of that pact is called: TORA. When describing this pact, in the Pasuq mentioned above, the Tora calls the nation of Israel as “goy qadosh”.   “goy” means “nation”. But the next word, “qadosh” is very difficult to translate with one single English word. “Qadosh” could mean, according to the context: sacred, holy, special, separated, consecrated, unique, different, and more.

In the context of the covenant, which we commemorate in Shabu’ot,  qadosh means “chosen”, goy  qadosh “chosen” people.

Chosen for what?

We were chosen first and foremost to be God’s witnesses. In Shabu’ot, when we received the Tora, HaShem revealed Himself to the people of Israel. We saw no images, but we heard His voice.  We were, and still are, the sole witnesses of God’s existence. The case of God’s existence does not rest on philosophical or scientific evidences. It rests on the testimony of the Jewish people.  As the prophet Yesha’ayahu said: אַתֶּם עֵדַי, נְאֻם ה’, וְעַבְדִּי אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרְתִּי, לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּ וְתַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְתָבִינוּ, כִּי אֲנִי הוּא, לְפָנַי לֹא נוֹצַר אֵל וְאַחֲרַי לֹא יִהְיֶה  “So says HaShem [to Israel] “You are My witnesses, My servant, whom I have chosen; so you will know and believe and make understand [the rest of the world] that I exists. There is no god before Me, no after Me”.

In one of his letters (Igeret Teman) Maimonides explains that the first thing a Jewish parent should teach his child is the story of Shabu’ot, known in Hebrew as  מעמד הר סיני , the event in which when we witnessed God’s existence at the feet of Mt. Sinai. This is what defines us, Jews, as the chosen people.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, to be the chosen people does not mean that we have more rights than other nations. On the contrary, it means that because we were witnesses of HaShem’s existence, HaShem expects from us an exemplary behavior. God will be examining our conduct closer than the rest of the nations. Perhaps, no one formulated this cardinal concept better than the prophet Amos (3:2). So said HaShem,      רק אתכם ידעתי מכל משפחות האדמה על כן אפקד עליכם את כל עונתיכם  “You alone [the people of Israel] I’ve known (=loved, chosen) from among all the families of the earth; therefore I will hold you to accountable for all your iniquities…”

To be the chosen people is not about having more rights but more obligations and particularly, more accountability. To be a Jew is a huge responsibility. If a Jew acts with dishonesty, misbehaves, offends, etc.,  then he disqualifies himself as one of HaShem’s witnesses, causing Hilul HaShem, i.e., “making the case for Creator weaker”.

To be a Jew implies the permanent awareness that the case for God rests on our living testimony.

שבת שלום