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ness of the Jewish People

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

Torah is the candle and Israel is its wick, causing the light of God to shine forth.

The recipient of the good for which God created the universe was destined to be man. However it was initially not determined whether the entire human race or only part of it would be the recipient of this good.

The group that would be the recipient of the divine good was defined as Israel (Yisrael). These people would be the ones who would perceive the divine and become the recipients of God's goodness. It is thus taught that the concept of Israel was God's very first thought in creating the universe. It is thus written, Israel is God's holy portion, the first of His harvest (Jeremiah 2:3).

Besides creating the concept of Israel as the recipient of His good, God also created a means through which this Israel would receive this good. This means was the Torah, which, as such, was God's blueprint for creation.

The Torah is the way to God's good, as He said, I have given you a good teaching, My Torah, do not forsake it (Proverbs 4:2). It is thus taught that, There is no good other than the Torah.

The Torah was thus among the prime ingredients of creation. The Torah itself allegorically says, God made me as the beginning of His way, the first of His original paths (Proverbs 8:22). Still, the Torah did not assume its present form until it was given.

God's purpose in creation required that Israel accept the Torah.

The Torah was created for the sake of Israel. God's purpose in creation required that Israel accept the Torah. If not, all creation would have lost its reason for being, and would have ceased to exist.

If Adam would have been worthy and would not have sinned, then all of his descendants would have been worthy of the Torah. If not for Adam's sin, all mankind would have had the status of Israel.

Because of Adam's sin, however, the Torah was restricted to the small portion of humanity who would eventually be worthy of receiving it. The rest of humanity were given seven commandments, binding on every human being. They are:

  1. Not to worship idols
  2. Not to curse God (blasphemy)
  3. To establish courts of justice
  4. Not to murder
  5. Not to engage in sexual immorality
  6. Not to steal
  7. Not to eat flesh from a living animal


Of these commandments, the first six were given to Adam himself. The seventh commandment would have been redundant for him, since the eating of all animal flesh was forbidden until the generation of Noah, following the Great Flood. Thus, the final commandment, prohibiting the eating of flesh from a living animal, was given to Noah and his sons. Since this completed the giving of commandments binding on all humanity, these seven commandments are referred to as the Commandments of Noah's Sons (Mitzvot Bnai Noach).

These commandments were given so that all humans could partake of God's good by obeying them. It is thus taught that non-Israelites who obey these seven commandments have a portion in the World to Come.

These commandments were also meant to benefit humanity in this world, serving as the basis of morality and ethics. Thus, the prohibitions against idolatry and blasphemy teach man to worship and respect the Supreme Being, this being the foundation of all ethics. The prohibitions against murder, incest, adultery, robbery and the perversion of justice serve as the foundations of human morality. Finally, the prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal teaches man kindness toward lower creatures as well as control of his base appetites.

The First 20 Generations

There were 10 generations from Adam to Noah, and throughout this period, mankind experienced a continual moral decline. The world reverted to paganism, and most people forgot the universal commandments. In order to give civilization a new start, God brought the Great Flood, destroying all the descendants of Adam, with the exception of Noah and his family.

Soon after the Great Flood, however, the world once again reverted to paganism and immorality. With very few exceptions, humanity again forgot God's universal laws. There were exceptions, such as Noah's son, Shem, and his grandson, Eber, but even they did not publicly teach God's law. Again, 10 generations passed, with the world's morality constantly deteriorating.

It was into this pagan atmosphere that a most individual was born. From his earliest childhood, Abraham transcended his pagan environment and recognized that the world was governed by one Supreme Being. As one of the greatest geniuses of his time, Abraham was able to use his keen mind to see through the sham and falsehood of the values of his generation, and understand the true purpose of creation.

Abraham's faith developed and overshadowed everything else in his life, until he was even willing to suffer martyrdom for it. Never in history had an unaided individual made such a complete break with his environment, overcoming all obstacles for the sake of a yet-unknown faith.

The Rise of Abraham

When Abraham was 48 years old, a crucial historical event took place. God saw in Abraham a force that could bring all mankind back to Him, if only humanity could be unified. He therefore brought a spirit of unity upon the world, influencing all mankind to act in one accord. However, instead of uniting to serve God, mankind united to build the Tower of Babel.

Humanity as a whole then lost the opportunity to come under the category of Israel, the group designed to receive the Torah and fulfill the purpose of creation. Instead, the human race was split up into nations, each with its own language and mission. It was at this time that God decreed that the descendants of Abraham also become a nation, with the special mission of serving God and fulfilling his purpose in creation.

At the age of 70 Abraham took a voluntary pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After a sojourn in Egypt, where he gained great wealth, he returned to the Holy Land, where he soon became caught up in a great battle that was raging there. After playing a decisive role in this battle, Abraham was blessed by Shem and was taught by him the traditions that had been handed down from the time of Adam. At this time, Abraham took over from Shem the task of being the bearer of these traditions.

Using the methods taught to him by Shem, Abraham sought to attain true prophecy. Soon, God revealed Himself to Abraham, and promised that his children would eventually grow into a great nation. A while after this, when Abraham was 75, God revealed Himself to him again, and instructed him to leave his homeland permanently and to settle in the Holy Land.

Abraham became the first one publicly to teach about God.

By this time, Abraham's faith was not only fully developed, but he also had the courage to act on the basis of his convictions. Realizing that one cannot live a truth while allowing others to remain ignorant of it, Abraham became the first one publicly to teach about God and His universal commandments.

Therefore, unlike the other righteous people of his time, whose children quickly became reabsorbed in the paganism of their time, Abraham was able to transmit his values to his offspring. He was able to establish his teachings among his descendants, until a self-sustaining group of the faithful was firmly established. God thus said, Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. For I have known him, and I know that he will instruct his children and his household after him, that they will keep God's way, and maintain righteousness and justice, so that God will be able to grant Abraham everything He promised him (Genesis 18:18-19).

Still, Abraham's environment was so corrupt that it even claimed some of his own children and grandchildren. Of his two sons, only Isaac carried on the tradition, while Ishmael reverted to paganism. Similarly, of Isaac's two sons, only Jacob remained true, while Esav soon abandoned God's law. Thus, of all Abraham's children, only Jacob and his family were able to maintain the tradition intact.

Sign of the Covenant

God changed Abraham's name and gave him and his descendants the commandment of circumcision as an everlasting covenant. Abraham was circumcised by Shem, after which Abraham himself circumcised the rest of his household. This occurred on Yom Kippur, and that day therefore marks the beginning of Israel's covenant with God.

Circumcision was given to Abraham and his offspring so that they would be set aside by an indelible bodily sign, symbolic of their control of their physical passions. Since it was on the organ of reproduction, it symbolized that the particular distinction given to Abraham would also be passed on to his children. It implied that he would have offspring who would have the distinction of having the status of Israel.

To some degree, circumcision restored Abraham and his descendants to the status of Adam before his sin. It was because they were circumcised that Abraham's descendants were able to be the recipients of the Torah. Thus it was through the commandment of circumcision that the purpose of creation could be fulfilled.

The commandment of circumcision did not apply to the children of Ishmael, since it was given after his birth. Similarly, it did not apply to the children of Esav, since they rejected the distinction and responsibility that went with the covenant. Thus, of all the descendants of Abraham, only the children of Israel are bound by this commandment.

God tested Abraham in 10 different ways to prove his faith. In the last of these tests, He asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. After these tests, God gave Abraham the distinction that no one other than his descendants would ever have the status of Israel. God also promised that even if his descendants sinned, they would never be abandoned.

Jacob Becomes Israel

Of all the Patriarchs, only Jacob was able to lead all his children in the way of God. It was for this reason that he was chosen to be the father of the nation dedicated to serving Him.

Jacob became worthy of this after he wrestled with an angel and defeated him. This battle took place on a spiritual level, and was perceived by Jacob in a prophetic vision. The man with whom he wrestled symbolized all the forces of evil in the world, and hence, the fact that Jacob was victorious showed that he had enough spiritual fortitude to give over to his children the power to ultimately overcome evil.

Jacob's victory showed that the spiritual fortitude to overcome evil.

In this episode, Jacob was wounded in his thigh. This symbolized the partial victory of evil as well as the persecutions that his children would have to endure as a dedicated people. Jacob accepted both the responsibility and its consequences, merely asking for a blessing to give his children the power to endure.

The angel then gave Jacob the name Israel. This indicated that Jacob and his offspring would be great before God, and that they would have power over the highest spiritual forces. It also indicated that Jacob's offspring would survive to carry the banner of God's teachings to all mankind.

God later reaffirmed that Jacob was indeed Israel. Jacob had become Israel, the head of the group that God had originally conceived as the recipients of His good. Israel was a concept that had existed before creation, but now Jacob and his descendants would be worthy of carrying both the name and the concept that goes with it.

Slavery in Egypt

Even the ancestry of the Patriarchs, however, would not have been enough to mold Israel into a nation capable of adhering to their faith under all conditions. God therefore decreed that they spend 210 years in Egypt. During this time, they would be subject to the harshest persecution and slavery.

The Egyptian bondage was like a refining furnace, where all the spiritually weaker elements were weeded out, while at the same time, the Israelites grew from a small desert family to a populous nation. The Egyptian bondage would expose the Israelites to one of the greatest civilizations of the time, while at the same time strengthening them and drawing them together.

In many ways, the Israelites proved themselves worthy of God's choice. Even under the most degrading slavery, they maintained their identity and basic moral values. Out of the crucible of Egypt, Israel thus emerged, refined and ready to become the torchbearers of God and the recipients of His Torah.

Nevertheless, in many ways, the Israelites did fall into the pagan ways of the Egyptians. In describing the Israelites before the Exodus, God thus said, They rebelled against Me and would not listen to Me. None of them reflected the detestable things that attracted them, nor did they abandon the idols of Egypt. I would have decided to pour out My anger against them… but I acted for the sake of My name… For I had given My word that in the sight of the nations I would lead My people out of the land of Egypt (Ezekiel 20:8-9).

Ultimately, the Israelites were chosen by God primarily because of the merit of the Patriarchs. It is thus written, Only in your fathers did God delight, and He loved them and chose their offspring after them, namely you, above all peoples, as it is today (Deut. 10:15).

It was through the merit of the Patriarchs that the Israelites were led into Egypt, only to be redeemed amid the greatest miracles ever witnessed by humanity. It is thus written, God did not set His love over you, nor choose you, because you were greater in number than any other nation, for indeed, you were the least populous of all nations. But because God loved you, and because He kept the oath that He made to your fathers, God brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage (Deut. 7:7, 8).

The Exodus was a event in the annals of history. God revealed Himself to an entire nation, and literally changed the course of both history and nature. It is thus written, Did God ever venture to take a nation for himself from another nation, with a challenge, with signs and wonders, as God your Lord did in Egypt before your very eyes? You have had sure proof that God is the Lord, there is none other (Deut. 4:34). The Exodus not only made Israel ly aware of God, but it also showed Him profoundly involved in the affairs of humanity.

Revelation at Sinai

It was the Exodus and the events surrounding it that makes Judaism among all other religions. Other faiths began with a single individual who claimed to have a special message and gradually gathered a following. His followers then spread the word and gathered converts, until a new religion was born. Virtually every great world religion follows this pattern.

The main exception is Judaism. God gathered an entire nation, three million strong, to the foot of Mount Sinai, and proclaimed His message. Every man, woman and child heard God's voice, proclaiming the Ten Commandments. A permanent bond was thus forged between God and Israel.

This event remained deeply imprinted in the soul of Israel, and throughout history it was something that was not to be forgotten. We are likewise commanded not to forget the Exodus…

Israel had the faith and tenacity to adhere to God's teachings throughout history.

Besides the merit of the Patriarchs, the Israelites also had many characteristics of their own. God knew that among all the nations of the world, only Israel would have the great faith and intrinsic tenacity to adhere to His teachings throughout all the vicissitudes of history. It was as though God had asked all the nations to accept the Torah and had been refused by them. In contrast, Israel's immediate reaction to the offer of the Torah had been, All that God has spoken, we will do and we will obey (Exodus 24:7).

It was therefore primarily because of this ready acceptance of the Torah that Israel was chosen to the exclusion of the rest of mankind. Before the giving of the Ten Commandments, God thus said, Now therefore, if you will hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure among all nations, for all the earth is Mine. You shall be My kingdom of priests and holy nation (Exodus 19:5).

The Israelites were thus totally sanctified to God... God said, You shall be holy to Me, for I, God, am holy, and I have set you apart from all other peoples, that you should be Mine (Leviticus 20:26).

Light Unto the Nations

But being chosen is more of a responsibility than a privilege. Israel has the incessant mission of proclaiming God's teachings to the world. It is thus written, I, God, have called you in righteousness… and have set you up as a covenant of the people, for a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). This does not mean that the Torah should be taught to gentiles, but that they should be informed of the universal commandments.

Israel has a mission to bear witness to God's existence. God thus told Israel, You are My witness… and My servant whom I have chosen (Isaiah 43:10). It is taught that Israel is like the heart of humanity, constantly beating and infusing all mankind with faith in God and His teachings.

This universal message would often be proclaimed even at the price of suffering and persecution. It is taught that Israel is likened to an olive, since just as an olive must be crushed to bring forth oil, so Israel is persecuted so that its light should shine forth. Even the dispersion of Israel among the nations was to teach the world how to serve God. Moreover, the fact that Israel was scattered all over the world would guarantee that they not become extinct by means of their persecutions.

Because of Israel's place in God's plan, the people must constantly be corrected whenever they stray from the true path. God thus said, Only you have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will keep account of all your sins' (Amos 3:2). Still, when God punishes Israel, He only does so as a father punishes his children. It is thus written, As a man chastises his son, so God your Lord chastises you (Deut. 8:5).

Nevertheless, God promised that despite all these sufferings, Israel wold always continue to exist to fulfill His purpose. He thus said, The mountains may depart, and the hills may be removed, but My kindness will not depart from you, neither will My covenant of peace be removed (Isaiah 54:10)…

Although Israel has been persecuted and degraded throughout history, the nation will ultimately be vindicated. God said, Although you have been hated and forsaken, so that no man is concerned with you, I will make you an object of eternal pride and never ending joy (Isaiah 60:15). It is God's promise that Israel will ultimately restore the world to good, and cannot be destroyed as long as the task is not completed. He said, [Israel] shall not fail nor be crushed until he has rectified the world, for the islands await his teachings (Isaiah 42:4).

Most important, Israel has the role of fulfilling God's purpose in creation. God said to Israel, I have placed My words in your mouth, and have kept you safe under the shelter of My hand, so that I may plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth, and say to Zion, 'You are My people' (Isaiah 51:16). It is thus taught that God, Israel and the Torah are ly linked together. The Torah is like oil in a lamp, and Israel is its wick, causing the light of God to shine forth on all creation.

From The Handbook of Jewish Thought (Vol. 1), Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

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