The life-affirming rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah is born of the most basic notion in Judaism: the idea of being “chosen.” To be a Jew is to understand that your life is a purposeful creation; you have been selected by God to exist. The belief that one’s existence is intentional lends meaning to all aspects of the struggle—each day and experience, whether painful or joyous, is significant.

From what I can tell, it’s this notion—the belief in being “chosen”—more than any other that seems to rub non-Jews the wrong way. The problem, I think, is one of misunderstanding: “I am here on purpose” may get interpreted as “God favors me above you.” Or maybe non-Jews understand perfectly well, but the willingness to embrace such a bold claim runs counter to every fiber in their beings. Yet, Jews intended this belief to be embraced by all of humanity, which is why Genesis begins with one man and one woman, both intentionally created, from which all people descend. It is so radical a notion, so powerfully positive. Could it be the bedrock of other affirmative ideas like love and gratitude?

The Jews I grew up with didn’t go around talking about being “chosen.” They never once made reference to it or acted like they were better than anyone else. Yet I sensed a subtle difference in how they existed in the world. They didn’t seem uncertain about whether they deserved to be here, as I was. They may have had a host of other insecurities, but that most fundamental one didn’t appear to be among them. They took up their little bit of space in the world with a confidence I hadn’t realized was possible. During my teenage years, I remained tentative, but my proximity to an alternative outlook was a powerful antidote. I believe it was just enough get me through.

Rosh Hashanah’s encouragement to review my misdeeds brought up these memories because for all the good my time in L.A. did me, and despite how much I appreciated my friends and classmates, once I left the city I rarely returned. My constant moving made staying in touch with anyone from my past challenging and over the years the lines of communication between me and my L.A. gang slowly unraveled. I kept in sporadic contact with one of them, Lisa, who acted as a sort of a lifeline to the others.

In the time since I had last seen my L.A. friends, they had endured the usual hardships 20 years in any life brings, including the death of parents and, heartbreakingly, a would-be fiancé in a horrific auto accident. Yet, I had not offered a phone call or even an email of condolence. What did this failure to reach out say about me? What kind of friend was I? What kind of person?

33 thoughts on “Chosen

  1. And where did you get such ideas of self-judgment as if a more righteous person would have done those things you felt no need to do? I think that’s where this idea of “sin” grabs hold. “I shoulda, woulda, coulda….” instead of asking, as the feelings come up, “Do I want to change this next time?” instead of dancing around with the prickly clouds of self-judgment. I used to do this with funerals of people I loved. Everyone else was crying their eyes out except me. I judged myself poorly for a long time until I realized that everyone grieves differently. Sometime later I would have a memory of that person or hear some musical reminder and the tears would come. Eventually I learned it was o.k. to be me.

    • Hi Frank, It seems to be part of the human condition to judge ourselves poorly, doesn’t it? It can take a lifetime to get over it and, ideally, religious wisdom can help. Unfortunately, depending on how it’s used, it can also make it worse.

  2. “What did this failure to reach out say about me? What kind of friend was I? What kind of person?”
    It makes you human, Corrina, just like the rest of us. I don’t know anyone who’s circle of friends hasn’t evolved in some way over the years. While I still have a few friends from my college days (mid-1980’s), I’ve also lived in pretty much the same place, so it’s been relatively easy to stay in personal contact. I’ve also made—and lost—many friends since. And don’t forget, friendship is a two-way street. How many of your L.A. friends tried to maintain contact with you? Our interests and priorities change and diverge over time, and we’re naturally attracted to people who share those interests. In movies or TV, how often have you seen the stereotypical high school jock, now in his late 40’s, no longer the big man on campus, and longing for his glory days? It says something about people who hang too tightly to the past. I try to be thankful for the friends I had and have, because all of them added something to who I am, and I’d like to think I did the same for them. Like anyone else, I find myself wondering “where are they now”, but I also wonder what they’d be like now, and would we still be friends? Maybe remembering people as they were is a gift.
    As for the first part of the your post about being “chosen,” there’s plenty of scriptural references in both the Old and New Testaments about God gathering “all nations unto Him.” He’s never played favorites. I’ve come to believe He chose the Jews as a way of showing the world what he could offer to everyone who does His will and work. As you said, it is the bedrock of an affirmative view of the world. Sadly, I think early Christianity’s desire to separate itself from Judaism and establish itself as its own faith tradition, led to a breach with the idea of being chosen. But St. Peter calls us all members of a “royal priesthood” without regard to social status or previous beliefs. Like friendship, being “chosen” is a two-way street: God chooses us, but we also have to choose to let Him into our lives, in the many ways he offers. I’m thinking about the story of Jonah, who desperately tried not to be “chosen”, to the point of trying to escape on a ship and winding up in a fish’s belly. And then, after finally accepting being chosen, what does he do? He whines to God because He refuses to destroy Nineveh, a city of non-believers, because they weren’t “chosen”. God offers the choice and the choosing to all of us.

  3. That “chosen people” notion is a difficult one for lots of jews as well! I have always hated that concept. Rabbis have tried to explain it to me as not necessarily a privilege but actually a burden–something that jews have to live up to–god expects more of us. Still, it still means we were singled out for special treatment in some way and I cannot accept it. Also, it serves to increase the resentment of others towards jews.

    • Bonnie, Welcome! Thank you for your comment. Yes, I can see how it might be a “touchy” subject. I guess the way I was thinking of it, the idea of being chosen is such a powerful gift. Sometimes I wonder if more young people (and older people too) could feel or know this, if self-destructive behaviors and suicides could be reduced. Jews may have brought this idea to the world, but I don’t see why we can’t all borrow it–especially if it was meant as a by-product of having been granted life, as some say the Bible suggests. Maybe the solution is not denying yourself this gift, but instead extending it to everyone else.

  4. Well, I have heard my priest describe us as “God’s chosen people”, so the concept apparently runs through Christianity as well. I think your Rabbi’s explanation that it is as much a burden as a privilege is an accurate one. And sadly, it has been at the basis of so many horrific crimes through the centuries. At the same time, hasn’t Judaism remained pretty closely ‘internalized’? I remember reading something about the time when, if a Jew married outside the faith, there would be a Kadish held, grieving the death of that person. There would be the same ‘shunning’ if a Catholic married a Protestant. Correct me if I am wrong….I am just basing this on what I have read and heard of over the years.

    Whenever we do an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario, I think that man tends to sink to his lowest level. (Frank..Carmen, did you notice I forbore from using the word sin?) I think that one of the benefits of the Age of Nones, so to speak, is that those attitudes between faiths, for the most part, have mellowed. Hopefully.

    Nice to meet you Bonnie. I think we have not met? At any rate, hello.

    • Whenever we do an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario, I think that man tends to sink to his lowest level. (Frank..Carmen, did you notice I forbore from using the word sin?) I think that one of the benefits of the Age of Nones, so to speak, is that those attitudes between faiths, for the most part, have mellowed. Hopefully.

      Patti, I think you stated it perfectly. The us vs. them mentality has done more damage in God’s world than we can imagine. I think when God looks at us, He’s seeing each of us individually as His unique creation, which mean none of us haven’t been “chosen”.

      • Thanks for not bringing up “sin” … 🙂 If there is anything I believe as relative to “chosen” it’s that each one of us has a gift to give. Whatever it is it is uniquely ours because we are all as different as our fingerprints, just as each snowflake and grain of sand is different while all looking alike. I love it when a person discovers their gift and runs with it. They bless themselves and many others. Too many people get stifled early on and believe they cannot give the gift they came to give or haven’t been given the opportunity to open up to it. If the only thing I do in this life is facilitate someone to discover their gift and open up to it and run with it as if they were God expressing I will be amply blessed.

        On Sat, Aug 3, 2013 at 4:24 PM, One None Gets Some wrote:

        > ** > Tim C commented: “Whenever we do an us and them scenario, I think > that man tends to sink to his lowest level. (Frank..Carmen, did you notice > I forbore from using the word sin?) I think that one of the benefits of the > Age of Nones, so to speak, is that those att” >

        • “If the only thing I do in this life is facilitate someone to discover their gift and open up to it and run with it as if they were God expressing I will be amply blessed.”

          Well said, Frank–and Amen!

  5. Its fascinating to see how Jewish traditions are perceived. I think for myself it was a moment that I transitioned from a bystander in the Jewish world to a participant. My role was real and no less important than any other fellow Jew, and ultimately that distinction came with a sense of duty. Jewish law gives credit to individual at a much younger age than civil law. The freedoms, duties and privileges of being an adult are a foundation that helps one frame a constructive life perspective which is especially anchoring in the tumultuous hormone laden stage known as the teen years.

    As a father who saw my three boys pass this milestone, I felt it was a sign of perpetuity and validation that our traditions were alive and relevant.

    As to the theme of the “Chosen People”, I really don’t think that message is prevalent in the observant circles. In fact, when we speak amongst ourselves and we recount some of the miserable things that Jews must contend with, ie. Iran’s obnoxious statements about wiping Israel off the face of the earth, you can often hear the joking, “Ok Gd, perhaps you could choose some other people for awhile!”

    Its interesting to note that Maimonides codified a hierarchy of charity, ranking family and the town that you currently live in higher than others in further places. Proximity and our social natures are largely driven by where we are at any given time…so if it was good enough for Maimonides its good enough for me to derive a simple perspective. It’s good to remember old relationships, but if our emotional and physical resources are limited, our duties lay closer to home.

    • Hi Rabbi Aaron, Interesting. There’s the celebratory aspect of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but there’s also the introduction of the celebrant as a responsible person–both of which give those hard teen years a boost and an anchor. I hadn’t thought about that second aspect as an anchor, but I can see how that could help a person steer wisely toward adulthood. Thank you for sharing that point made by Maimonides…it makes good sense.

  6. You know the great thing about teaching is the fact that you are constantly facilitating people–young men and young women—to discover and embrace their academic gifts….and sometimes in doing so, other talents just rise to the surface! Although I graduated from college with a degree in the Natural Sciences, I soon found that MY gift was in helping children to be better writers and to be proficient, and sometimes voracious readers. During my 35+ years of working in the classroom and with other teachers, I was amply blessed time and again…….and again!

    Corinna, after I read your post today, I was drawn back through my years of classroom work to remember a few of my Jewish students. Wendy was in my very first class of fifth graders….Aaron came later, as did Jennifer and Josh. There were also others, but I was taken by your words about the subtle way that they “existed in the world.” They were not just self-confident….they were confident in the world and their place in it. Very solid. Very smart and very supported by their parents. I can see that if you were surrounded by this that some of it would rub off! You make it sound like it was a very nurturing time of your life.

    I am thinking that your last few sentences might not totally envelope all of your thoughts and feelings……those are the easiest ones to access: Why didn’t I? I think that Tim did a great job of talking about that……we change…our friends change…..times change. Anyway, he said it well. What I am wondering if you are not, like me, grieving a bit for those times and experiences which were so supporting…… which were so pivotal for you as a young woman in LA….and experiences with young people which were so fulfilling for me. I sat with a certain melancholy today which pulled me back in time. It returned me to thinking about the Wendy’s and the Josh’s and all those in between. It was a good day.

    • After reading Aaron’s post, I want to clarify my comments. I don’t think that the seeming personal strength of the Jewish children I worked with had much to do with the “Chosen” business. But I do think it had to do with being rooted in a deep tradition and in being tremendously supported by their families—both close and extended. There were also non-Jewish children who had this sense about them, but I often felt that Jewish children knew their place in the World….the the best way! MET

    • Hi Merrill, well, it looks like the moisture in Washington over the last couple of days really helped the firefighters battle the fires. Good news! Yes, I think you are right, I was grieving for those times and I think Rosh Hashanah was a chance for me to really reflect on how important that time in my life had been and how much my old friends meant (and mean) to me. Really, more than anything, I was afraid they didn’t know I loved them.

      • And now, Corinna, you can do something abut re-connecting, if you haven’t already. What a gift.

        Yes, cooler, wetter weather has slowed things down. My son is home for a couple of days with a compromised foot, but he plans to be back on line with his crew as soon as possible. Thanks you for the continued prayers, universal power and comic energy you have all sent to surround these crazy, heroic young people. Keep up the good works!

  7. Hello. Rabbi Aaron, let me say that I find it equally fascinating to get a your explanations on Judaism, about which I am seriously ignorant.

    I think that I am envious of the concept of Bat Mitsvah. As I recall myself at 13, I can think of nothing that would have been more beneficial for my emotional state. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Christians have any real one on one equivalent. That is too bad.

    • Hi Patti,
      Thanks for your comment. For many years I have felt that we all grow together when we can sincerely ask and answer questions for each other.

  8. One of the best parts of Corinna’s blog is that there are many times that the posters don’t necessarily agree with each other, but we DO attempt asking and answering, and respecting each other. Carmen and I were talking about a lot of things while I visited her this July (I’m from Charlotte, NC and she’s in Morden, Nova Scotia). We disagreed on a lot of things, lol. But we both understood each other and at one point I made the comment – “I cannot , personally, validate what you believe in this, but I ABSOLUTELY validate your right to believe it and respect that right. That’s kind of what it is like here on the blog, as will become readily apparent.

    Can you verify something for me? I have heard that it is a ‘mitsvah’, a kindness in God’s eyes, to care for animals. Is that true? And if it is, I think it is something we Christians should have paid more attention to incorporating into our belief system!! This is the first time I have had a chance to ask a real, live Rabbi (!), so I’m asking – even if it’s off topic. 🙂

    Yours, in Christ

    • Hi Patti,
      Good question. Yes it is one of the mitzvahs to “not cause pain” to an animal. Also, if animals are dependent on you, Jewish tradition says that you should feed your animals before you eat yourself. There are subcategories to this as well. An observant Jew who rests on the Sabbath must also provide rest to an animal that he may use for plowing etc. While Jewish law sets standards to establish that animals are well treated these protections never supersede the life of a human, given that it is possible that one could be faced with an ugly choice. An example might be if you lived in an apartment building that is consumed with fire, and you could only manage to run into the building once and you must choose to save your pet or a stranger.

      This is merely a snapshot of the ideology regarding the value of life, whether it is human, animal or even in a plant form.

  9. Rabbi, in my house (five indoor cats, two outdoor cats and a VERY, VERY spoiled chihuahua, there is no question about who gets fed first. THEY do, lol. If you have ever tried to ignore the calls of a hungry part Siamese cat, you’d see how easy it is to follow that particular tradition.

    Thank you. I like knowing that. I also like that Judaism takes thought for things like this. Our world would be better off if we all followed some of these traditions.

    Hello, Colleen!

  10. Rabbi and Colleen, it seems there’s less room in Judaism for “cherry picking” your faith expression than there is in Christianity. One of the more unfortunate results of the splintering of Christianity into so many denominations is the way virtually any of them can use Scripture to exclude other groups. The most extreme example would be Westboro Baptist Church, but even most mainline denominations have an element of “us” versus “them”, all based, of course, on their interpretations of the Bible. Looking at it from the outside, Judaism seems much more holistic, and reminds us we’re all part of God’s creation, right down to the lilies of the field. I think if more of us approached life with that attitude, there would be a lot less unnecessary strife in the world.

    • Me too.

      On Sun, Aug 4, 2013 at 2:21 PM, One None Gets Some wrote:

      > ** > Tim C commented: “Rabbi and Colleen, it seems theres less room in > Judaism for cherry picking your faith expression than there is in > Christianity. One of the more unfortunate results of the splintering of > Christianity into so many denominations is the way virtuall” >

  11. Hi everyone, what a great discussion. I just wanted to comment on what Tim said above: “I’ve come to believe He chose the Jews as a way of showing the world what he could offer to everyone who does His will and work.” That’s my thinking as well. Now, with all the calamities that have happened to the Jews across time, it’s hard not to wonder, is it such a good thing to be chosen? Or as Rabbi Aaron says, “God, couldn’t you choose someone else for awhile?” But the choosing goes deeper than what troubles befall us while we walk this earth.

    In the novel “The Shack”, Papa would say, “I’m especially fond of him” or her. For a minute you’d think, “Oh, God has special favorites?” until Papa would say that about someone else. It became clear that Papa was “especially fond” of each person. As Frank points out, each of us is as unique as one snowflake is unique among all the others, and I believe God is especially fond of each of us individually, delighting in us. It doesn’t mean troubles and adventures won’t fall to us while we’re here, but I’ve found that knowing God is fond of me gets me through anything. Maybe that’s how the Jewish people ‘take a licking and keep on ticking’?? Sorry to be flip… Rabbi Aaron, what do you think?

  12. Corinna, as others have echoed, you are normal. You are human. But I believe, in this series on Judaism – read through my evangelical eyes – you are uncovering the essence of true, pure religion…being made in the image of God. That doesn’t just apply to initial creation, but when you purpose in your heart to follow God, you decide to become LIKE the Father. (Sorry for the male language.) Church services/synagogue is simply a collection of VERY different people who made that same decision committed to keeping that goal in front of each other, at least once weekly. In our crazy, mixed-up world, we discover quickly that God’s is an upside-down Kingdom, the antithesis of what surrounds us most days, like that confidence you perceived in the kids. And it does lead to the hard questions. like you asked yourself. Sometimes out of guilt, sometimes out of fear – both of which can be positive emotions – and sometimes out of gratefulness, we pursue the traits of the Divine in the midst of hurt, pain, suffering, so we can bring His Kingdom to earth.

  13. Frank, you are so much more an optimist than I! BUT, I second your wish for more compassion, love and empowerment with heart and soul.

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