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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, and The Post-Honeymoon Journey.
One of the things that immediately distinguishes Judaism from all other religions is the fact that we are the “Chosen People.” Whereas most other religions are based upon a charismatic prophet/leader who creates followers – Christians are those who accept Jesus, Muslims are those who follow Mohammad – the Jewish people cannot be defined as the followers of any one man. Rather, our legacy is that we were chosen as a nation, and, insofar as we needed a leader, Moses was selected to be our first leader and prophet. We are in no way the product of Moses’s inspiration, however, as the adherents of other religions can be said to be products of their prophets. Ours is not a one-man show with millions of enthusiastic volunteers; our is a multi-million-man show.
This is not simply a historical distinction – it relates to the essential nature of our purpose.
When one person is charged with inspiring others and changing the world, he – the “chosen” one – goes out amongst the “unchosen” and tries to teach them, to inspire them, to change them for the better. However, since only he received the direct revelation from G-d, while he may be able to communicate some of what he has experienced, it is unlikely that he will be able to fully convert others to be like himself. At best, he may have to content himself with inspiring incremental changes in those that he encounters.
Consider, for example, our patriarch Abraham. It is said that when Abraham first made the trek to the Land of Israel, he took with him “the souls they had acquired in Haran.” (Genesis, 12:5) Commentaries say that this is a reference to the many converts that Abraham and Sarah had brought under wings of the Shekhina. So Abraham preached monotheism to thousands, who followed him on his journey to the Holy Land. What became of them? There are no records of any any “Jewish” monotheistic nation emerging during that era other than the Children of Israel. In fact, we don’t hear of those converts again. So we can surmise that the “converts” simply meant people enlightened by Abraham’s teachings, but that did not fully embrace the Abrahamic tradition and lifestyle.
From the completely other end of the spectrum, consider St. Patrick. His mission was to spread Christianity in pagan Ireland, which then embraced a feasting and sensual culture focused on a reverence for nature. How is St. Patrick remembered today? With the color green, representing the very reverence for nature that he was trying to supplant; with beer, representing the inebriated feasting of pre-Christian Irish culture; and with leprechauns, a figure of pre-Christian Irish folklore. Thus, even as he may have changed them by his Christianity, his legacy is inextricably linked with their original values and beliefs.
Enter the Jewish project. Here G-d says, I’m not sending out one — or even a group of individual missionaries to convert or influence the masses of humanity. That is not the best way to reach them. Sure, they might find your teachings inspiring. Sure, some of your words might end up on a bumper sticker. But what can an individual really show them?
Rather, G-d says, let me create a model society, born of parentage that I know embrace the values and beliefs required for this society to work. To this group, this small swath of humanity, I will give my special rules and guidelines for living. They will behave with reference to my rules – not with reference to the lifestyles of the other nations of the world. While I expect them to be kind and compassionate towards all humans, I especially need them to be kind to each other, in order to foster the society and culture that I am trying to create. And because it is a closed experiment, I need it to stay within the family, and to keep external influences to a minimum (see Deuteronomy, 7:3-4).
Then, G-d says, if this works, and you create the society that I intend by following my rules and guidelines, “that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people… For what [other] great nation is there that has God so near to it?” Deuteronomy, 4:6-7.
This is a far more powerful tool to educate and inspire humanity. No longer did G-d suffice with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, to deliver sermons, or to act as individual examples of goodness; He decided He wanted to show humankind what an ideal society could look like. Let them have an example of what they could collectively become. And, like it or hate it, the responsibility for being that model was laid at the feet of the Jewish nation. It’s why we don’t proselytize; you don’t try to crowd the model home – you use it to inspire the creation of others like it.
It’s easier said than done, and is certainly done far less frequently than it is said. We have lost much of our kindness and tolerance towards each other. We have been plagued by circumstances beyond our control, and the attendant temptations to deviate from our moral code. And it is not always easy to distinguish between what is Jewish progress and what is gentile infiltration – particularly when it comes to our sexual morals. The full set of Fifty Shades of Grey graces the shelves of more Jewish homes than one might expect; on the other hand, sexual adventure may in fact indicate a return to – and not a departure from – traditional Judaism’s very encouraging approach sexual bliss. It’s hard to tell, and besides – sex is so darn good, regardless of the source of inspiration.
Nevertheless, this week’s parsha V’Etchanan reminds us in so many ways not to lose sight of the fundamental mission with which we were charged so many years ago, our anchor, as we explore the waters around us: to become the society after which all other societies will seek to model themselves, and to be an inspiration and light unto the nations on our journey forward.