What Tevye Knew

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One of my favorite scenes from Fiddler on the Roof  is Tevye’s riff on Jews being the Chosen People.  After reminding God that Jews have suffered violence and oppression for being different, he basically tells God that it’s no great honor to be chosen.  Jews would be better off, he suggests, if God would choose someone else.

Tevye’s monologue brings to mind a famous, oft-quoted midrash (legend) from rabbinic literature.  According to the rabbis, when God approached various peoples in the desert and offered them the Torah, they all replied, “What’s in this Torah of yours?” Upon hearing of a certain law or commandment they deemed difficult to abide, each group respectfully declined. Finally, God offers the Torah to the People of Israel, who immediately reply in unison, “na-aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will obey.” The Jewish people do not hesitate to accept God’s Torah. This is the idealized version of our history.

In another, less-quoted midrash, God is forced to raise Mount Sinai from the ground and dangle it above the people, threatening them, until they cry out “na-aseh v’nishma” as if crying uncle. This is what Tevye knew about being a chosen people: We were chosen to serve God through the commandments, even those which are difficult to understand and fulfill, even when the very nature of chosenness causes Jews to be reviled and exiled by the other nations.  And with the mountain hanging over our heads, it wasn’t much of a choice.

Soon we will observe the festival of Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the Torah. The challenge of chosenness is that we must embrace both the responsibilities and the joys of being Jewish.  Shavuot demands that we cry out “na-aseh v’nishma” together, that we add our voices to those of our biblical ancestors, that we choose to be chosen by God.

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