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Dvar Torah for Eikev

Jews Are Special, Aren't They?
by Rabbi Aaron Liebman

There is an old joke about a teacher who gave a multi-national class an assignment to write an essay relating somehow to the topic of "elephants." The American student wrote a paper entitled "How to Raise Elephants for Fun and Profit," the French student scripted a lavishly illustrated essay on "The Love Life of the Elephant," the German compiled a well-outlined article entitled "How to Instill Proper Discipline in Your Elephant," and the Jew wrote about "The Elephant and the Jewish Problem."

To many of us Jews, the world seems to revolve around us, for better and for worse. This point of view comes through particularly strong within our religious tradition. After all, we are told that God chose us from among the nations, and God has a special relationship with us. But while this notion is indeed supported by several sources, it isn't the only point of view within our religious heritage. This week's Torah portion, in particular, suggests a strikingly different perspective.

Moses is speaking to the Israelites before they are to enter the Land of Canaan. The land, he tells them, is inhabited by many nations more numerous and mighty than the Israelites, populated by giants that have built tremendous cities and fortifications that reach the sky. But the Israelites need not be afraid, Moses says, because God will go with them to fight for them and like a devouring fire will crush these other nations, and the Israelites will inherit their land.

Why will God do this? What have the Israelites done to deserve this wonderful gift? Moses warns (Deut. 9:4-6) that no Israelite should say: "It is because of my virtue or my rectitude that I have come to inherit this land." Rather it is because God wants to punish the other nations that had previously inhabited the land. The Israelites themselves, rather than being virtuous, are a stubborn and stiff-necked people, and Moses goes on to list a litany of complaints against them to illustrate how undeserving they are. And while the Torah does go on to note another reason that the Israelites will inherit the Land of Canaan - the covenantal promise that God made to their ancestors (the Patriarchs) - the message conveyed by this text is quite humbling, that the Israelites are not so special and certainly not deserving of special divine favors. Rather they are tools of God's plan a plan focused primarily on the reward or punishment of other nations.

Interestingly, just two chapters earlier Moses himself sounds a very different note. At the conclusion of last week's Torah portion, Parshat Va'etchanan (Deut. 7:6-8), Moses says that the Israelites are very special, chosen by God to be a holy and treasured nation. Why? The second reason, here too, is that God made an oath to the Israelites' ancestors. But the first reason, which largely sets the tone of that text, is that God loves the Israelites.

The dichotomy between these two texts is quite sharp. It leaves unanswered the question: Does God indeed love the Israelites, and does the history of our people reflect that special relationship we have with God? Or, to the contrary, does God barely put up with us, and are the Israelites/Jews merely used by God as pawns in God's dealings with other nations?

I am reminded of a Hassidic parable, told to me by my teacher Rabbi David Greenstein, about how one should always carry two notes, in separate pockets. On one of them should be written anokhi afar va'efer "I am but earth and ash" (Gen. 18:27, Job 30:19) and on the other bishvili nivra ha'olam "for my sake the world was created" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Both of these are good Jewish texts, and yet they seem to be diametrically opposed to each other.

The point is not (or not only) that one ought to live in a constant state of unreconciled tension. Rather it is that sometimes we need a little encouragement, or rebuke. Sometimes we feel so downtrodden that we might forget that we each one of us as an individual is supremely important in God's eyes: "for my sake the world was created." At other times we become so full of self-importance and hubris that we need to be reminded how miniscule we are in the larger scheme of things: "I am but earth and ash."

The two Torah segments mentioned above, one in Eikev and one in Va'etchanan, were both spoken to the Israelites by Moses, their leader and educator. Sometimes we need a shot of encouragement, and sometimes we need a dose of humility. Moses, appropriately for an educator attuned to the needs of his students, adjusted his message based on what the Israelites needed to hear at different times.

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