BEING THE “CHOSEN PEOPLE”
Q. Isn’t it arrogant and exclusionist for us to regard ourselves as the Chosen People?
A. The concept of Jewish “chosenness” offends many as arrogant.
George Bernard Shaw compared it to the Nazis’ claim to be a Herrenvolk. HG Wells called it a hindrance to world unity. Arnold Toynbee said it was “the most notorious historical example of the idolisation of an ephemeral self”.
So let us put the record straight. We may be a distinctive people but we do not pretend to be intrinsically superior to others. Nor do we claim exclusive rights to salvation. Jewish teaching is clear: “The righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come.”
It is not a person’s religious label which is decisive, but whether he has lived a righteous life.
But to attain righteousness, says Judaism, the world needed a teacher. Our belief is that Israel had long ago developed sufficiently in moral consciousness that it was capable of understanding and accepting the challenge of attempting to spread righteousness as “a light to the nations”.
Thus Isidore Epstein said: “Israel had from the very first laid upon them the task of dedicating themselves to the rearing of righteousness among the sons of man. It is God’s work that they were called upon to do, and they must do it in the whole world, transforming the darkest corners of the earth”.
It is paradoxical of course that the so-called people of God have suffered so much for their pains. Perhaps it is inevitable for a deliberately dissentient minority to attract suspicion and persecution. Perhaps we needed to undergo experiences which would reinforce our determination to strive for the stars even when others sought to bring us down to the dust.
This can be a heavy chore, and we are not perfect as a people, yet the world has a long way to go before it really learns the lessons of our prophetic teachers and begins to approach the Jewish ideals of mutual concern and social justice.
TALK IN THE FAMILY
Q. It has come to my attention that a member of the family is telling other relatives terrible things about me, and I am feeling very hurt. What should I do?
A. Family dynamics are always a touchy subject and I hope the people to whom your relative passes on such comments can stand up for themselves and refuse to believe what is said, and indeed to suggest that the person who is talking to them should check their facts and reconsider the wisdom of purveying this gossip.
The rule in Jewish ethics is that a person who utters slander hurts three people – the one about whom it is said, the one who hears it, and the one who says it (Talmud Arachin 15b).
The question for you yourself is whether to get directly involved by confronting the one who is spreading the comments.
This is probably not a smart thing to do because they are sure to deny any wrongdoing and/or to tell you what a terrible person you are for even suspecting that they would do such a thing. Unfortunately, as the sages say, slander can be worse than using a weapon against you: weapons hurt from nearby, whilst slander hurts from afar (Talmud Yerushalmi Pe’ah 1:1).
Even if other members of the family try to handle the problem themselves the odds are that the air will remain a bit cloudy and restoring “shalom bayit” might take a long time or even never fully happen at all.
DESTROYING OR DUMPING
Q. I know there is a prohibition of “bal tash’chit” (wastefully destroying things). I am moving house and I want to discard or dump some things I no longer need. Is this allowed?
A. The command about not destroying comes in D’varim (20:19). This is the negative side of the principle of ecology, the positive side being the command to tend and protect the earth (Gen. 2:15).
Many references to not destroying deal with trees and vegetation. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says, “If a person kills a tree before its time, it is like murdering a soul”.
Maimonides applies “Do not destroy” to many wider examples: “Not only one who cuts down (fruit-producing) trees but also a person who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or wantonly destroys food, transgresses the command of ‘Do not destroy’” (Hil’chot M’lachim 6).
There are of course situations in which destruction has a constructive purpose, being negative in order to be positive. But simply destroying stuff to get it out of the way is problematical and you would do better ethically to look for new homes for things you don’t want.
How about dumping? The Torah (Deut. 23:13-14) says that refuse should be moved “outside the camp”, which seems to support putting things in a dump. However, the development of the halachah on this rule warns against establishing a dump or placing things there which would affect the environment or harm human life.
There is a further question: if the items you dump are still usable you should – as suggested above in relation to destroying things – try and find them new homes.
Unfortunately one of the modern problems is electronic items which are now outmoded, but before abandoning or destroying them you should check whether a charity can do something with them.