By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We continue this week with our correspondence with the singer Matisyahu.
I think my No. 1 question during the decade I was ultra-orthodox was as follows: How can we claim that we were chosen by God to be his special nation without saying it’s a racist idea? Conceptually, how is this any different from Hitler saying the Germans are the pure race or any other race or religion claiming they are the “special ones.” Granted, we are not out there murdering those who don’t believe as we do. However, it seems impossible to claim that we don’t see ourselves as better.
I never felt comfortable with this concept and never got a satisfactory answer.
Good luck, my friend.
Let us consider a light bulb. A light bulb is a receptacle for electric energy used to provide illumination. Multiple sizes and types of light bulbs are available based on the use one intends for it.
If you want a dim nightlight for your hallway or bathroom, you don’t need a very big bulb; it doesn’t need to receive so much energy, as you don’t intend to cast much illumination with it. If you intend to light up your living room, you need a larger receptacle for the greater energy needed. An even larger one is necessary to light up your backyard. Another whole league of bulb is needed if you want to illuminate a football field for a night game.
I think it’s fair to say that although all the bulbs mentioned above are of multiple sizes and give off diverse amounts of light, none of them are “better” than the other. As a matter of fact, it would be counter-productive to put a high-intensity flood light in your bathroom. And, needless to say, the nightlight wouldn’t do much in the backyard. Different doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different.
As we find different purposes for light bulbs, we also find different purposes among nations of the world. We believe that every nation, Jewish or gentile, has a divine mission (or missions) to effect in the world — just as we believe that every individual person, Jewish or gentile, has a unique purpose for which he or she was sent to this world.
My mentor, the esteemed sage Rav Wolbe, ob’m, once gave a discourse showing which unique lessons are to be learned by a large number of nations and how we, the Jews, learn those lessons during our exile. Then, we will fuse them all together and incorporate them into our broader national consciousness when the ingathering of the exiles is complete at the final Messianic time of our national history.
Part of the unique role of the Jewish people is to be a “light among the nations.” This means that it will not do for Jewish souls to illuminate just our immediate surroundings. To be only a nightlight will not suffice. When God gave us the Torah at Sinai, He intended it to be an instruction manual for all of mankind.
This does not mean everyone needs to be Jewish; on the contrary, that would detract from each nation’s individual role. There are, however, lessons in the Torah how the gentile nations should conduct themselves under the rule of God.
It is incumbent upon the one nation to which the Torah was given directly, the Jewish people, to be that high-intensity floodlight so they can be a “light among the nations” — to conduct themselves in an exemplary way. That will make them a role model for the entire world; they will teach what it means to live with a relationship with God.
As we see, to be a “chosen nation” is a lot more about a higher level of responsibility than it is about being “better.” (And, for better or worse, the Torah also outlines in no uncertain terms about what is coming to us if and when we don’t fulfill that responsibility, as we have experienced throughout our Diaspora history).
At Sinai, we were endowed with the expanded souls necessary to be a receptacle for all that spiritual energy; we continue to receive it through the Torah for all time. May we live up to our responsibilities and truly serve as an inspiration for all of mankind.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.