Netanel runs a Torah Website - Geshmak Torah - which he describes as “a user friendly Dvar Torah service with compelling, "say-able" Divrei Torah. gTorah makes them navigable, accessible, and pleasant to read; with content that will speak to everyone”.
I am pleased to post this Dvar Torah submitted by him for Erev Yom Kippur. His words follow.
As Moshe winds down in his final address to the people, he reiterates the responsibility they took on when they agreed the covenant at Sinai:
“Today, Hashem your God commands you to perform these laws and statutes; to guard and keep them – with all your heart and soul. Regarding Hashem you have said today, that He will be a god to you; that you will walk in his ways, to keep his laws and statutes; and listen to His voice.”
“Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos. And He will place you supreme, above all the nations He made; for praise, honour and glory, that you would be a holy nation dedicated to Him, as was said.” (26:16-19)
The first part relates to our commitment to the relationship, and the second part to Hashem’s commitment. The transition though, is quite difficult:
“Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos.”
The opening is clearly Hashem speaking of us, but the ending, which discusses mitzva performance is clearly back to our commitment. How is adherence to Torah related to being called Am Segula? Whose commitment is this about? And what is the supremacy granted as a result?
Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being called Am Segula – “chosen” – is not what it seems at face value. It is not a status we are born with; it is a title, an achievement that we have to work towards.
Similarly with circumcision. The very first mitzva a newborn is party to is a microcosm of the Jewish mission; perfecting what we have with what we are given, working towards the ultimate goal of perfection.
Rabbeinu Bachye says that the entire verse pertains to our commitment –– we just have to earn it.
So being chosen is in fact a bestowing of responsibility, but is in turn rewarded with being "supreme" over the other nations. What does this mean?
R Shamshon Refael Hirsch writes how when the responsibilities are met, the world becomes a better place. The world is damaged, and being a better person repairs it.
Adam was commanded to “conquer” the world, when he was still all alone. His conquest was through listening to God; this is how all the animals knew to come to him to be named – they perceived godliness in him.
The same with Yakov – the Torah emphasises how he left Beersheba and went to Charan. The former seems redundant – it should only matter that he arrived somewhere - and the answer is that his departure does matter. When someone righteous leaves or goes somewhere, the environment and atmosphere of the place fundamentally change.
There is a story told of a young Chafetz Chaim, who saw the ills of the world, and decided to change the world. Seeing that the task was too monumentally large, he changed his mind, and set out to change his community. After seeing that that too was impossible, he downgraded his ambitions again, and decided that if he could not make them better, he’d at least himself.
And by making himself better, he really did change the world.
R Hirsch teaches that by being better people, the world becomes a better place. There is famine, war, child slavery and kidnapping in the world, and while people attempt to deal with the symptoms, it is ultimately futile if humans aren’t more humane.
This is also what we mean when we make brachos, when we say Asher Kidshanu; and what we mean we say Ata VChartanu on Yomim Tovim – the very next words confirm that v'Kidashtanu b'Mitzvosecha - what distinguishes us is our mitzvos.
The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through perfection of self. On Rosh HaShana we daven for the world to become a better place. It's in our hands to make it so.