The Why Not the How: Peoplehood With Purpose

Year by year, we read through the Torah from beginning to end, skipping nothing, right?

Maybe not. Not originally anyway. The Yerushalmi (the Talmud from the Land of Israel) reports Mishnah Megillah 4:10 as saying, “The Priestly Benediction [Numbers 6:24-26] is neither read nor translated.” The parallel passage in the Babli (the Talmud from Babylonia), however, says, “We read the priestly benediction but do not translate it.” And that is the rule today. In either case, it may not be translated.

“Translated” here refers to simultaneous translation during services, a practice that was commonplace when there were no printed books for following along. On either Talmudic account, the Priestly Benediction remains untranslated. But why?

The Yerushalmi doesn’t say, but the Babli explains it brilliantly. The blessing asks God 1. to bless us and keep us; 2. To deal kindly with us and be gracious to us; and 3. To bestow favor upon us and grant us peace. The problem, says the Babli is the Hebrew verb, “to bestow favor,” which can also mean “to show judicial favoritism,” a practice that is deeply abhorrent to the Torah’s sense of justice. Indeed, Deuteronomy 10:17 says explicitly, God “shows no favoritism.”

To be sure, only the uninformed would confuse “favor” with “favoritism,” the Babli says. People with enough education to understand the original Hebrew would know better. They would reason, for example, that when we keep the mitzvot, we even go beyond the letter of the law to do it right (Berachot 20b), so when we ask God to “bestow favor” we just mean that God should properly reward meritorious behavior.

Still, the uninformed might confuse “showing favor” with “favoritism,” as might the translators themselves, so even the opinion that permits the Hebrew reading prohibits its translation – just to play it safe.

There is more to this than meets the eye. The debate has consequences for the central Jewish belief in being the Chosen People. When we say, in our Torah blessings, for example, asher bachar banu … v’natan lanu et torato, “who chose us… and gave us Torah,” is God’s” favoring” of Israel really “favoritism”?

The answer has to be “No”! Israel must somehow have merited the right to be chosen. Indeed, a familiar midrash says that God offered the Torah to many peoples, but only Israel accepted it. That claim can sound gratuitously self-congratulatory, but its point is not to boast about ourselves; it is to save the reputation of God, and to underscore the virtue of judicial impartiality. Moral probity demands that any special relationship with God must be earned.

The Rabbis make the same claim about other peoples, who are said to have their own “Noahide” covenants with God, and who, presumably, must merit them, as we do ours. The prophet Amos likens Israel to Cushites and Philistines, for example, leading Rashi to picture God asking Israel rhetorically, “Aren’t you descended from Noah, the same as  everyone else?” Jewish peoplehood is nothing if it is not earned. The minute we cease deserving to be God’s People, it is as if we no longer are.

In the days of our infancy, we had Moses to intercede for us when we faltered. But having now grown up, we must also face up to the demands of Jewish Peoplehood. Jewish continuity cannot exist just for its own sake. It must be rooted in some transcendent mission. More than just a People, we must be a People with Purpose.

Much is said and written about the threats to Jewish peoplehood: anti-Semitism from without and apathy from within. By contrast, relatively little conversation occurs on why we still deserve this age-old relationship with God. Jews were “chosen” because God had a purpose for us in mind. Our organizational agendas, school curricula, and institutional mission statements would do well  to insist on that purpose.  The “why” of survival is no less important than the “how.” Without knowing the “why,” the “how” will fail. Committed to the “why,” the “how” will follow.


2 responses to “The Why Not the How: Peoplehood With Purpose

  1. Thank you Larry. How we are is just as important, if not more important, than who we are.

    All the best,

  2. “relatively little conversation occurs on why we still deserve this age-old relationship with God”

    a very important conversation. I have been reading – slowly – I have 143 chapters to go out of the 929. A little more than Torah. The issue, I submit, is not merit, nor deserve. The issue is example. And the example is frequently a bad one, but it is common to all humanity. You were chosen as example. And I am thankful. You are a good example, a real sledgehammer in the hand of G-d. (I hope my reading of Jeremiah 51 is not totally out to lunch). Right now I am reading Judges 20 and desperate to put the words of Hashem into some perspective against the later prophet. There on the third occasion of the pulse of the anvil, כפעם בפעם a pulse that should be tender as in 1 Samuel 3, we are told that the battle was glorious כבד. But they did not know that evil touched them. וְהֵם֙ לֹ֣א יָדְע֔וּ כִּֽי־נֹגַ֥עַת עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם הָרָעָֽה

    There is a real motivation for love here, and for purity, and for goodness, not out of merit, but out of a depth of gift that is very easy to miss. It is curious that also in this chapter, I see my first instance of חטא translated as miss rather than a gloss related to sin. It is for the left-handed stone-slingers. We hope not to miss when we read Scripture. Whether translated or not.

    It is true that נשא can mean show partiality. But its dominant gloss is to lift up, bear, forbear. Here in Numbers 6:26, the lifting up of פנה face, presence, could indeed imply partiality. Not out of prejudice or injustice, but out of necessity, we should have peace with our kin. Putting this against Judges 20 raises many issues for today.

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