The Chosen People

Dear Rabbi Hyim, I have often heard the Jewish people referred to as the “chosen” people.  What does this mean?  Is this why there are more Jewish Nobel Prize winners per-capita than any other people? Sincerely, Curious Toulouse, France Dear Curious, The idea of the Jewish people as the “chosen” people comes from the Bible.  In it God communicates with Abraham the first Jew and tells him, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…and through you all the peoples of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12:1).” It seems that the Jewish people are not chosen for special treatment, indeed most of the special treatment the Jewish people receive is persecutory. Rather the Jewish people are given a special responsibility, a particular mission. This mission is to be a light unto the nations by living as the Jewish people, with the commandments that God gave the Jewish people in the Torah, the Bible. Though the Jews have spent much of the last 3000 years as the object of hatred and persecution, they seem to have done many great things. Indeed, we have shed much light in the world, traveling from country to county, inventing new ways of doing things and bringing new ideas to the world such as monotheism, Biblical ethics, and of course myriad scientific, social and philosophical movements and paradigms.  In many ways it is the Jewish people, the parents of Christianity and Islam, that have formed much of what we call the West. I once asked my teacher in Israel, the great scholar of Talmud, Rabbi Israel Samet, how the Jewish people in the State of Israel were doing their job of bringing a light unto the nations when today so many view the state of Israel of being less than fully ethical.  (Right or wrong this does not bring about our ability to be a paradigm to the nations.)  He answered me that perhaps to have a democratic nation in the midst of 50 or so theocracies and less than benevolent theocratic monarchies, is to bring light to a dark part of the world, the Middle...

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Up All Night

Dear Rabbi Hyim, My neighbor tells me that his synagogue stays up all night during the next Jewish holyday.  I have never heard of such a Jewish holiday.  Can you tell me more? Sincerely, Amy from Maplewood    Dear Amy, Your neighbor is referring to the holiday of Shavuot, which means “weeks” in English.  The holiday received this name because it comes at the culmination of a process of counting days and weeks that Jewish people engage in each year from the second day of Passover until this holiday. The holiday of Shavuot has no calendar date in the Torah.  Rather, the Jewish people are commanded to count 50 days from Passover and on the 50th day celebrate a harvest holiday thanking God for the new crop of wheat and the first fruits. The reason that your friend stays up all night is that in addition to being a harvest holiday traditionally this day also celebrates the day the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai in the process of Divine revelation described in the Biblical book of Exodus.   To commemorate this event, there is a custom to stay up all night studying torah, thus showing our love and thanks for such a gift. If you would like to stay up all night and study this year, you are invited to join us in eastern University City for the community Shavuot all night Torah study, co-sponsored by Bais Abraham, Sharee Zedek, CRC, and a number of other community synagogues and organizations. The all night community study will feature many classes to choose from and will be held Saturday night May 26, at Bais Abraham Congregation, 6910 Delmar Blvd. from 10:30pm until...

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Counting the Omer

Dear Rabbi Hyim, What is the counting of the omer between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot? Sincerely, Cherayll, Joplin, MO   Dear Cheryll, The bible in the book of Leviticus commands the Jewish people to count 49 days, seven weeks, from the “day after the Sabbath” and on the 50th day make a festival to God on which they should bring bread as an offering. Judaism’s oral tradition tells us that the day after the Sabbath refers to the day after the first day of Passover and that the holiday 50 days latter is the holiday we know as Shavuot.  According to the bible, this counting from an offering of grain that was brought to the temple in Jerusalem on the second day of Passover began from the bringing of grain in the amount of an “omer” like a bushel.  Hence the count’s name.  Following the offering of this first of the grain, the Jewish people were permitted to eat from their new crop. Thus the 49 day count is about two things:  Counting from the holiday of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot; from the exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the torah 50 days latter.  But the count is also about a grain offering brought on Passover of the new barley harvest to a grain offering on Shavuot of the new wheat harvest. What is the connection between bringing the first of our grain to the temple and counting up to getting the torah at Mount Sinai?  Why is this count connected to both seemingly disconnected things?   Rabbi Noach of Slonim gives and interesting answer.  Slaves do not own anything.  They harvest grain, but it belongs to their master.  Thus they can not thank God for it but also do not run the risk of feeling in charge and forgetting God’s gifts. The free person on the other hand can own his own crop.  He runs the risk of forgetting God and saying “look what I produced,” and so the free person who left Egypt must immediately bring the first of their grain to God.  Precisely at the moment when one would feel accomplished and wealthy, at the time of the harvest, then we bring the grain to the temple and recognize that it is not us who makes the rain fall and the crops grow, but it is God who does.   Thus upon leaving Egypt, one must commit to bringing the first of the grain.  This is the proper preparation for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai 50 days...

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More ‘Mitzvah,’ Less ‘Bar’

Dear Rabbi Hyim, I have a daughter becoming a Bat Mitzvah this summer, I am painting a wood chair to be used for the Hora.  I have painted her Hebrew name across the back of the chair, and I wanted also to paint in Hebrew some life-long blessings for her. Do you have any that are relatively brief and particularly meaningful?  Thank you for any insight you can share with me. Sincerely, D.   Dear D., There are many blessings that would be appropriate for a daughter becoming a Bat Mitzvah.  It is important when choosing them to remember the purpose of Bat or Bar Mitzvah.  Literally the word Bat” means “daughter of” and the word “mitzvah” means “the commandments.”  In other words, the Bat Mitzvah celebrates adulthood but specifically in terms of religious obligations. To be an adult in Judaism is to become responsible. Before a Bat Mitzvah, one’s parents are responsible to educate and train them in Jewish learning and practice. Once one is Bat Mitzvahed, the obligation to be responsible devolves upon oneself.  So it is important to remember that it’s more than just a party or celebration.  Rather than making the common mistake of thinking that it’s more “bar” and less “mitzvah,” we would instill it with much deeper meaning for our children by being sure to retain its traditional context.   More “mitzvah,” less “bar.” Perhaps in this vein, the traditional blessing that is given every Friday night by parents to their children would be appropriate: Yisimech Elohim k’Sarah Rivka Rachel v’Leah-“May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Mazal...

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Persecuted People – Why?

Dear Rabbi Hyim: If the Jewish people are the “chosen” people, as the Bible says they are, why have they been subject to seemingly relentless persecution and exile every 50 to 100 years throughout history? Sincerely, Mary from Bethlehem, Missouri   Dear Mary, Indeed Jewish history is perplexing.  Why are the Jewish people so victimized throughout history, including the expulsion from Israel, the crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust, expulsion from almost every Muslim country, the inquisition, etc?  Yet strangely they have not only persevered but brought a great deal to humankind.  Many of the great ideas, Nobel prizes, the only democracy in the Middle East, the only modern resurrection of an ancient language, came from the Jews. Yet, for most of its history, they were a people without a country. It is hard to know why the chosen people are persecuted.  As one great writer once said, maybe it would be better not to have been chosen if this is what it means.  Perhaps its due to jealousy, or, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, what’s not to hate in the people that brought the world One God who has moral and spiritual expectations of us?   Or maybe the answer is, as it says in the Jewish liturgy, “because of our sins have we been exiled from the Land.” We can only hope for a better time in which the “lion will lie down with the lamb” and “no nation shall know war...

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Blessings are a Blessing

Dear Rabbi Hyim Is it true that we Jews have a blessing for almost everything, as it says in “Fiddler on the Roof”?  What about for weird stuff like going to the bathroom, or going on a trip, or getting dressed or having sex? Sincerely,Curious in St. Louis   Dear Curious, You are right, for almost everything in life there is a blessing.  Blessings serve several purposes.  For instance, they can help to make moments that are often taken for granted more meaningful and indeed connect the everyday to God.  When we are hungry we eat, but for Jews we first make a blessing, thanking God and recognizing that eating can be a way of connecting to the Divine if approached with the right intent. There are blessings before ritual commandments. These thank God for sanctifying us with the Torah’s commandments.  In addition there are blessings on natural phenomena.  When we see the ocean or a mountain range or a shooting star we are in awe, the blessing helps us to connect this moment of inspiration we are already experiencing to the transcendent, to the infinite Divine, and thus find God in the world. In addition to blessings before eating, smelling good smells, doing a commandment, and on natural phenomena there are several other blessings that take advantage of opportunities to recognize what God does for us. Indeed, as you mentioned there is a blessing we say when we get dressed, “Blessed are you God who clothes the naked.” A blessing when we put on our shoes in the morning, “Blessed are you God who provides me with my every need,” (if one has shoes, which are more expensive than clothing, they really have everything). And there are many other blessings which we say every morning thanking God for everything from giving us eyesight to enabling us to walk, to making us Jewish. There is no blessing on sex even though having children is a mitzvah, since it’s a mitzvah we would know without the Torah telling us.But there is an incredibly moving blessing we say every time we go to the bathroom.  Here it is – put it up outside your bathroom and take the opportunity many times a day to thank God for a functioning body: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who formed the human being with wisdom and created within us many openings and many hollows. It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You, even for a moment. Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts...

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