This week’s haftarah is from Isaiah 42:5-21, and it is chosen as the haftarah for this week’s Torah portion of Bereshit, the creation story, because it opens with reminding the people of Israel that G-d created the world, and so, deserves to be listened to through the prophet Isaiah. Through the mouth of Isaiah, G-d says, “I have created you, and appointed you, a covenant people, a light of nations.” The Jewish Study Bible says that by “covenant people,” G-d means that the nation of Israel continues to exist by virtue of having chosen the Torah, and entering into the covenant to follow its Law. Isaiah is speaking of exile; that the Jewish people were removed from their homelands as punishment for sins, and will be returned to the Holy Land if they repent and live better, but in the meantime are allowed to maintain their sense of peoplehood while being strangers in a strange land because they are committed to Judaism in some way. In modern terms we can look at this similarly to what I spoke about last week. The Jewish people are the chosen people, simply because they are the people that chose. By choosing to live Jewishly, even if we sometimes make mistakes and are not always our best selves, we commit to be a part of the Jewish community. If we sometimes falter, but choose to stay a part of the Jewish community, the community and G-d will help us find the right path again, and we will be able to continue to choose to live by Jewish law and Hillel’s maxim: to treat others as you would like to be treated.
“A light of nations” is taken by the Jewish Study Bible to mean that G-d is sort of using the People of Israel as an example, that if the other nations of the world see how G-d has punished them with exile because of their sins, but redeems them because of their renewed faith, then other nations of the world will see the Great and Awesome power of G-d and G-d’s never-ending mercy. That the Israelites are a light to the nations because of what happens to them, not because of what they do. In the Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye makes the joke, “I know we are Your chosen people, but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” We can’t always help what befalls us, and for some reason, the Jews have been so chosen time and again throughout history to be the scapegoats, to be mistreated and exiled from numerous places, although I doubt it was actually to prove some cosmic point. In any case, now we are secure. There is still some antisemitism in the world, but there is a national homeland for Jews in Israel, and here in the United States we are so safe that it is a homeland for all people, including Jews. Again, I doubt we were rewarded these safe havens as cosmic reward or to prove to non-Jews that we’re somehow doing religion correctly, but I think it is an opportunity to show that choosing and being chosen are not mutually exclusive. Maybe we can be a light to the nations because of what happens to us and because of what we do. In our safe havens of the U.S. and Israel, we can use our comfort, with the knowledge of past discomfort, to speak out against other racisms. To acknowledge when others are being “chosen” for mistreatment, and show that choosing Torah means choosing to love all your neighbors as yourself, not just the neighbors that look and sound like you. Choosing to live as a Jew means choosing to treat everyone as you would like to be treated, not just those close to you.
This week we start the Torah over, and read Bereshit, “In the Beginning”. May we continue to choose Torah. And, though it will take more than six days, may we choose to use our Jewish values to work toward a beginning of a world in which all people are truly treated equally with respect. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.