“The Concept of ‘The Chosen People'”
(updated and revised from Shavuot 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

On this coming weekend, Jews will celebrate the festival of Shavuot, which will be observed, outside of Israel, on Thursday night, Friday and Saturday, May 25-27, 2023.

Shavuot is virtually an “anonymous” holiday. It is the only festival in the Torah which is not mentioned by name, and for which no date is noted. Although it is celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, the fact that it does not have a formal date in the Torah text implies that the giving of the Torah cannot be limited to any particular day. This anomaly is meant to convey that the Torah is given and renewed every single day.

3,335 years ago, on Shavuot, the Jewish people received the Torah at Sinai and formally became Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. It was at that moment, that the appellation, עַם סְגֻלָּה, ahm segulah, “the Chosen People,” was applied for the first time. In a graphic description of the encounter at the Sinai, which is provided in Exodus 19:5, Moshe tells the Jewish people in G-d’s name: “Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant”: וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים, “You shall be my own treasure from among all the peoples. For all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This concept of the “Chosen People,” more precisely, a “treasured” people to G-d, has caused the Jewish people much grief. The nations of the world find the concept hard to fathom, as do many Jews. Apparently, the rabbis also had difficulty with the “Chosen People” concept, and therefore offered the famous Midrash to mitigate the difficulty with the term.

The Midrash (Sifre, Deuteronomy 33:2, 343), describes G-d as having revealed himself, not only to Israel, but to all the nations of the world. G-d first goes to the children of Esau, and says to them, “Will you accept the Torah?” They answered, “What is written in it?” He said, “You shall not kill.” Said they, “L-rd of the Universe, the very essence of our father Esau is that he is a murderer. As it says, (Genesis 27:22) ‘And the hands were the hands of Esau,’ and (Genesis 27:40) ‘By the sword you shall live.’ We cannot accept the Torah!”

He then went to the children of Amon and Moav and said to them, “Do you accept the Torah?” They answered, “What is in it?” Said He, “You shall not commit adultery.” Said they to Him, “L-rd of the Universe, our very essence is that we come from adultery, as it says (Genesis 19:36), ‘And the two daughters of Lot conceived from their father.’ We cannot accept the Torah.”

He then went to the children of Ishmael and said to them, “Do you accept the Torah?” Said they to Him, “What is written in the Torah?” He answered, “You shall not steal.” They said to him, “L-rd of the Universe, our very essence is that we live from thievery and robbery. As it says (Genesis 16:12), ‘His hand was in all things, and the hand of all was upon him.’ We cannot accept the Torah.”

There was not a nation among the nations of the world to whom G-d did not speak and on whose door G-d did not knock, asking them whether they wished to accept the Torah. Afterwards, G-d came to Israel, and they said to Him, נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע, “We shall do and we shall hear!”

Through this Midrash, the rabbis accomplish a subtle semantic transformation. Rather than the Jews being the “Chosen People,” by the means of the Midrash, they become the “Choosing People.” The Midrash in effect asserts that all the nations of the world had an equal opportunity to choose Torah, but rejected it, and only the Jews chose Torah.

We find a similar idea regarding the “election” of Abraham. G-d did not designate Abraham to be the first Jew. Rather, it was Abraham who found G-d. A propos of this, a British writer and humorist, named William Norman Ewer (1885-1976), wrote what could be construed to be an anti-Semitic limerick, “How odd of G-d to choose the Jews.” Someone correctly and cleverly responded: “It’s not so odd, after all, they chose G-d!”

On this wonderful festival of Shavuot, let us prove ourselves worthy of being the “Chosen People” by choosing G-d once again, embracing His Torah, His precepts, and His commandments.

Go easy on the blintzes and the cheesecake!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3,335 years ago is observed this year on Thursday evening, May 25th, and continues through Saturday night, May 27, 2023.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy, festive, and healthy Shavuot.