Chosen for What?

Before the Israelites received the Torah God instructed Moses to describe them as a “Segula” (treasured) and a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation”. This is a biblical source for being a chosen people. But chosen for what?

Resource Ages: 15-18


Exodus (Shemot) 19:1-6

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.

Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain,

And Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine.

And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו ה’ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃

וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs or values of society?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
  • How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change
  • What are the Jewish values (e.g., freedom, responsibility, justice, community, respect of diversity etc.) that should be honored in an ideal society?
  • How would we define a utopian society?
  • How can exploring the past impact our present?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?


Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What do the terms “Am Segula” (Treasured People), “Mamlechet Cohanim” (a Kingdom of Priests), and “Goy Kadosh (a Holy Nation)” mean to me?
  • What does it mean to have a national mission?
  • What is the national mission of the Jewish people and how can I be a part of it?
  • What is the basis of the relationship between God and the Jewish people?
  • Do you think this means the Jewish people are superior in any way in the eyes of God or in their own eyes?
  • Where do you think you should live to best fulfill the Jewish national mission?

Background for Teacher

Exodus (Shemot) 19:1-6  Context of these verses – Preamble to revelation: Prior to the momentous event in which God reveals Himself to His people at Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain and returns to the people with several messages. In addition to the practical stages...

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Exodus (Shemot) 19:1-6 

Context of these verses – Preamble to revelation: Prior to the momentous event in which God reveals Himself to His people at Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain and returns to the people with several messages. In addition to the practical stages of their preparation, such as the command to keep their distance from the place of the revelation and the commandment to sanctify themselves for it, God instructs Moses to speak to the people as a collective unit in anticipation of their first covenant with God. This covenant includes the special destiny of the nation on the one hand, and their obligation to obey the will of God, on the other.

The meaning of segula: The language God instructs Moses to use when describing the covenant between God and the people, is they will be a “Segula” to Him, IF they are loyal to the covenant and obey His words (i.e. keep the mitzvot). The word “Segula” is often the term used for “Chosen People” as in “Am Segula” (and this together with two other instance of its use in Devarim 7:6 and 26:18) are the only reference to a “chosen People” of any kind. “Segula” has no etymological connotations of chosenness (although when it is found Devarim 7:6 it is preceded with the term “bachar” which does mean chosen by God which could explain this). Rather, its etymology meaning is “treasure” or “property”. It also has some etymological connection to “segol” which means violet or purple (a royal colour). All of this hints towards the meaning of treasure, and “Treasured People” would be a better translation of the term Am Segula.

The connection between Chosenness and Holiness: God continues in His description of the people (if they keep the covenant) as a “Kingdom of Priests” and a “Holy Nation”. The juxtaposition of these three terms (Am Segula, Mamlechet Cohanim, and Goy Kadosh) is important and suggests a conditional thematic connection. If the Israelites are to be a Treasured People to God, they must be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks present an approach to understanding what it means to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The People Chosen for What?

Chosen for a specific purpose: Rabbi Artson acknowledges the straightforward biblical notion of Jewish chosenness that manifests itself in God’s choosing one nation to immerse itself in the study of God’s Torah and the observance of the Torah’s mitzvot. The uniqueness of the Jewish relationship with God does not deny the divinity and infinite value of all human beings. The Israelites were chosen for the purpose of enabling all of humankind to develop loving relationships with God. Artson emphasizes that the chosenness of the Jewish people is directly connected to the ongoing Brit (covenant) – Jews constantly need to engage in the process of renewing the Brit through engagement and observance of Torah. In this sense, Jews must continually choose to be chosen and are empowered to affirm or rupture this “chosenness” relationship at any time.

Lasting nature of the berit: One may then ask the question: can Jews choose not to be chosen? Many biblical passages seem to indicate otherwise, that the relationship is eternal and irrevocable (see Tehillim 105:8, 10; 111:5, 9; Yechezkel 16:60; I Divrei HaYamim 16:15, 17). On the other hand, even if the Jewish people have no say in being chosen, they have a choice to do what is expected of them as part of the berit. The Tanakh and later texts are filled with examples of the consequences of those choices, which more than once led to a temporary state of estrangement between the Israelites and God.

Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, Pioneers of Religion

All nations are chosen for a purpose: Rabbi Jakobovits accepts the traditional reading of chosenness – that the Jewish people were in fact chosen by God. Yet, he proposes that different groups, at different times in world history, were chosen for different missions, all of which were important for God’s blueprint of the world to be put in place.

Chosenness for a national mission: Being chosen does not mean an all-around superiority, but the ability to perform a specific task better than others. Just as some have skills that would make them better artists, or better teachers, or better lawyers, others have skills that would make them better fit for a specific role God had in mind for them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, National Role Modeling

Chosen to model a religious and moral life: Rabbi Sacks here is sensitive to the possible misunderstanding that chosenness linked to holiness may be misinterpreted to mean an inherent superiority, either spiritual or moral. Holy for Rabbi Sacks means separated for a specific godly task – to operate in God’s domain, as His ambassadors on earth. The people are charged with the responsibility to be holy by operating in this role, testifying to God’s existence, and modeling how to live a life of God, through a moral and holy code of living.

Priestly modeling of holiness and proper conduct: He quotes the son of Maimonides, who in the name of his father makes a connection between this role and the role of the priest (because of the juxtaposition of these terms describing Israel in the verses – a chosen nation, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation). Just as the priest is the moral and spiritual leader of a people, modeling a holy and moral life and relationship with God, so too the Jewish people should function in this way, as role models to the nations of the world. 

Chosen to be educators and role models: The Levites in biblical times, as well as having responsibility for the functioning of the temple service, were the educators for the people. Rabbi Sacks is in effect here saying that to be a chosen people is to have a national mission to be educators to the world. The most effective way to be an educator is to be a role model. The covenant and mitzvot are for this purpose – to demonstrate a path to ethical holiness. 

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, Building a Model Society 

Actualizing the Jewish mission on a national level: In his seminal work, Orot, Rabbi Kook explores the national mission and destiny of the Jewish people “to uplift humanity” through observing the “ways of God and performing righteousness and judgment”. The question is how humanity would be uplifted through Jews observing the mitzvot? In much the same way as Rabbi Sacks envisions this as a modelling of a righteous and spiritual lifestyle, Rabbi Kook sees this modeling, but on a national scale. Rather than as an individual, who can demonstrate their own personal ethical behavior and spiritual relationship with God, Rabbi Kook calls for the entire nation to build a model society based on these values. A society based on Torah values demonstrates how every citizen can lead an ethical life and have a relationship with God, not just an individual who may be unusually spiritual or moral. This is the reason, Rabbi Kook would argue, the ultimate actualization of Judaism is in the Land of Israel, with the entire nation living in a society that implements Torah values on a national scale (something that cannot be modelled by an individual living in the diaspora). 

A Jewish State enables Judaism to realize its purpose fully in the public square: Rabbi Sacks also explores this idea in his book Future Tense, where he writes “Judaism is the constitution of a self-governing nation, the architectonics of a society dedicated to the service of God in freedom and dignity. Without a land and state, Judaism is a shadow of itself. In exile, God might still live in the hearts of Jews but not in the public square, in the justice of the courts, the morality of the economy and the humanitarianism of everyday life.” (p.136)

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • Mark Twain was the pen name of American novelist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910). The following famous passage is taken from a magazine article he wrote in 1899 in answer to a request to clarify his views about the Jews. It is a powerful description of his perception of the impact the Jews have made on the world. This could be used as a trigger to this unit which explores chosenness as a national mission for the betterment of humankind (chosenness is only one explanation to this phenomenon of Jewish history, and the other explanations are equally inspiring, and this could make for a rich discussion in your classroom). Ask your students to read it allowed and reflect on it using the questions that follow:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. 

Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.

His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind.

All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Mark Twain, Concerning the Jews, Harper’s Magazine, June 1899

  • How does this make you feel about being Jewish?
  • How can you explain the Jewish contribution to the world beyond what could be expected from such a tiny nation?
  • What do you think is the secret to Jewish immortality?
  • Can the concept of being a Chosen People help us to understand this phenomenon?
  • The following questions/activity can also be used in addition to the above reading, or independently, to explore the impact of Jewish people on the world. Nobel Prize winners is only one narrow way to measure this, but it is a powerful indicator of Jewish impact beyond their small numbers in the world. 
    • How many Jews do you think there are in a world with 8 billion humans in it? (answer: approximately 15 million – less than 0.02%)
    • How many Jewish nobel prize winners do you think there have been from the 900 Nobel Laureates? (answer: 20%)
    • How can you explain this in light of the tiny global Jewish population?
    • What Jewish values transmitted to every generation through education in both the home and school have contributed to this phenomenon?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  • Source 1: This is a biblical source for a “Chosen People” and is a good segue to exploring your students’ preconceived ideas on this. Allow them to analyze the terms themselves and bring the ideas they may have heard previously, together with their own analysis of the text, before they are exposed to other commentaries and thinkers who explore this text. These questions may help:
    • Have you ever heard the term : “Am Segula” before? What do you think it may mean?
    • What does this description tell us of the way God/the Torah sees His relationship with the Jewish people?
    • What is the role of a Cohen/priest (in Judaism historically or any other religion for that matter)?
    • What do you think it may mean to become a “Kingdom of Priests”?
    • What does it mean to be a “Holy Nation”? Is this intrinsic or is it something that needs to be achieved?
    • Can you see any connection between these three terms?
  • Source 2: Rabbi Artson is concerned that chosenness suggests that we believe we are superior and more beloved to God. He is clear to explain that chosenness does not mean these things,but rather chosen for a task (not to the exclusion of other people having other relationships and missions in the eyes of God). He does not however explore here what Jews have been chosen for (this is explored in the two sources that follow). These questions will encourage your students to consider his concerns and the approach he takes:
    • Have you ever been chosen for something (by your parents, or teacher for example)? Did this mean you were more loved or important?
    • Why do you think Rabbi Artson is concerned that some people may think Jewish chosenness means they think they are superior or more loved by God?
    • How does he explain that this is not the case?
    • Do you find his approach convincing?
  • Source 3: Having been introduced to the concept that other nations could also be “chosen” and loved by God, we see in the next source Rabbi Jacobovitz continues to develop this idea further for us, giving specific examples of what some nations may have been chosen for, including the Jewish people. These questions will help your students process this idea, and apply it in history:
    • How does Rabbi Jacobovitz approach the possibility that being chosen means being loved more?
    • What does he add to this theory that the previous source (Rabbi Artson) didn’t explore?
    • What do you think your country’s contribution to the world for which they have been chosen may be?
    • What does it mean to be the pioneers of religion and morality?
    • Can you see proof for this in history?
  • Source 4: Rabbi Sacks builds on his predecessor’s idea of the Jewish people pioneering religion and morality, and describes the mechanism through which they have done this – by modeling ethical monotheism. He also explains how we can understand this from the connection between the terms “Chosen People”, “Kingdom of Priests”, and a “Holy Nation”. These questions probe this:
    • What does Rabbi Sacks add to the idea of Rabbi Jacobovitz?
    • How does Rabbi Sacks explain we should fulfill our destiny and mission?
    • How can we learn this from the term “Kingdom of Priests” and a “Holy Nation”?
    • How can you be part of this endeavour?
  • Finally Rabbi Kook explains that for this process to be most impactful on the world, it must be undertaken not as individuals (living dispersed across the globe) but as a nation in their own land, modeling Torah values in society (something that can not be done to he same extent as individuals in the diaspora). These questions may help your students to consider what this might look like and what this means for Judaism and the Jewish people not in the Land of Israel:
    • How can the Jewish national mission (as described by the sources we have seen before this one) be fulfilled by you in the diaspora?
    • What added value does Rabbi Kook say there is to the fulfillment of this role in the Land of Israel?
    • How do you feel about this?
    • Do you think the State of Israel today is having the impact on the world that Rabbi Kook is describing?
  • To recap and apply the ideas in the sources, you could split your students in to four groups, and ask each group to take one of the thinkers, and either develop a plan for the actualization of the way chosenness is expressed in the source, or a journalistic report of examples from history when this can be seen. The four groups are:
    • Rabbi Artson: Living a life dedicated to God through keeping the Torah and mitzvot 
    • Rabbi Jacobovits: Pioneering religion and morality
    • Rabbi Sacks: Being an example to the world of living by Torah Values
    • Rabbi Kook: Building a society on Torah values

(You may wish to give your students only the name of the thinker without the title of their approach and ask them to develop their own title for the position they are representing.)

  • Identity Charts are an interesting way for students to consider the elements and components of who and what they are. This could be used also to explore their notion of what it means to be a Jew, or what the identity/purpose/destiny of the Jewish people is. You may wish to start the activity with their own personal identity charts, and then ask them to create an identity chart for the Jewish people (and in so doing, see if and where the role of “chosen people” falls.) THis could be done in pairs or small groups.