The Burden of Chosenness (On One Foot)
D’var for Ki Tavo (September 4, 2020); Beth Israel Center, Madison, WI
It’s been a challenging week for me, in terms of preparaing this d’var. Classes launched in less-than-ideal circumstances. On top of that, I broke my foot last Saturday afternoon. And so this evening I’m following in the footstep — step, singular, foot*step* — of Hillel and delivering Torah on one foot.
Now, I’m obviously no Hillel. I’ll deliver a piece of Torah, not the whole of it. This will be a bit lighter on texts than some of my previous efforts. And I can stand on one foot for no more than five minutes without tiring, so that’ll be my limit here.
Back on May 15, I gave a d’var of similar length on Bechukotai. I spoke then on the tocheichah: the curses that would befall the house of Israel if it abandoned the Torah. As I concluded my drash, I noted, “it seems sadly unlikely we’ll hear the version [of the curses] leyned in parsha Ki Tavo come September.”
Well, here we are come September, and unfortunately, we’re not going to hear the tocheichah leyned tomorrow. I do feel fortunate, though, to have another opportunity to share a d’var with you, and I thank Rav Batya for it. It’s fortuitous that she asked me for Ki Tavo and the tocheichah, but we’re going to pretend we planned it this way. And I do want to pick up from that May 15th drash.
I spoke, then, about how the curses pose a challenge to our modern sensibilities of agency, responsibility, and causality. If we fulfill the mitzvot, according to the Torah, we’re assured that we will receive everything we were promised in our covenant, including Eretz Tzion v’Yerushalayim. On the flip side, if we do not fulfill the mitzvot, we’ll be punished with the loss of all of those blessings, and more: described, excrutiatingly, 98-fold. Divine reward; divine retribution.
Why? Looking at contemporary commentary on Ki Tavo and the tocheichah, one significant explanatory theme emerges: that of chosenness. Now, Jews, and modern Jews especially, have a difficult relationship with chosenness. It’s now clear that any claim of chosenness as *better than* represents a moral misstep. And so we often resort to a denial that we are better. Rather, we explain, we’re chosen to shoulder a different, difficult moral burden, to lead a certain sort of life: a life of Torah. It does not make us superior. In fact, it makes us suffer. And we tell ourselves that this explanation avoids the trap of what might be termed Jewish supremacy.
But let’s be honest: that explanation isn’t fooling anyone. This was keenly apparent over this summer, in the wake of the antisemitic comments of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and comedian Nick Cannon. Both Jackson and Cannon are, of course, Black men, and both of them made claims that Black people are the true children of Israel, the true Hebrews, the true Chosen People. And, as Andre Key — a professor of African-American Studies in South Carolina — pointed out, they advanced their claims on *precisely* the same grounds as we just rehearsed above. That is, *Black* people in the United States, and the world over, have been made to suffer: slavery, dispossession, exile, diaspora, for hundreds of years, all the way up to the present day. How can Jews who have become functionally white in this country make any claims to chosenness on the grounds of suffering?
Key rejects both Black and Jewish claims to chosenness. He calls on us to abandon the pursuit of them. “Chasing chosenness,” he concludes, “leaves only losers, no winners.”
But how are we to take this advice, in light of today’s parasha, and the centrality of chosenness to Jewish identity, discourse, and practice? Particularly when chosenness very clearly chases us? Chases us when those non-Jewish people who affirm it use it to advance their own ends, whether political or religious or both. Chases us when those non-Jewish people who deny it do the same.
No: we can’t escape our chosenness. But at this time of year, when, moving from Tisha B’Av through the haftarot of consolation to the martyrology of Yom Kippur, we are so preoccupied by Jewish misfortune, we could resist the urge to define our chosenness by our suffering. And as we commit to repentance and repair, we could resist the mirror image of that urge: dropping the moral burden of suffering only to pick up a new, even more pernicious one, the one defined by Rudyard Kipling: the white man’s burden. That would simply mark the return of chosenness as superiority. Our choices, *Jewish* choices, must lead in a different direction: one in which we work with our neighbors, *as* neighbors; with the stranger, *as* strangers. We, the people, are those who once ask “why brought ye us from bondage, our loved Egyptian night?” — and we must remember that keenly as we pursue not chosenness, but justice. Justice.