One Chosen People is Enough
Imagine an alternate universe where instead of there being one Chosen People, one nation who received the Torah in the Middle East 3300 years ago, there were actually two nations who received the Torah: One, the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai, and two, a group of Olmecs, an ancient civilization from Mesoamerica in the western hemisphere, who also experienced a revelation around the same time. Both peoples received the Torah, but one nation lived in the East, and the other in the West. The Jews were given Israel as their Promised Land, and the Olmecs were given Mexico as their Promised Land.
What are the repercussions of this alternate history? Would knowing that there is another Chosen People on the other side of the world affect my ability as a Jew to serve God? Furthermore, over the course of centuries, Judaism spreads and eventually influences the creation of Christianity and Islam. What religions on the western hemisphere would crop up as a result of the Olmecs and their Torah?
These questions may sound silly and pointless, until we look at a verse from our parsha. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe prayed to Hashem to not only spare the Jews, but also to grant additional favors. One such favor was that instead of God sending an intermediary angel to guide the Jews through the desert into Eretz Israel, God would lead them directly. Moshe’s petition was (33:16):
וּבַמֶּה יִוָּדַע אֵפוֹא כִּי־מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲנִי וְעַמֶּךָ הֲלוֹא בְּלֶכְתְּךָ עִמָּנוּ וְנִפְלִינוּ אֲנִי וְעַמְּךָ מִכָּל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
For how shall it be known that both I and Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, both I and Your nation, from every nation on the face of the earth?
Different from all other nations
Moshe’s interest wasn’t just to have God closer to the people. He argued that this close contact would be how the rest of the world would recognize that the Jewish people were “distinguished” from every other nation of the world. Why was it important to Moshe that the world should recognize that the Jews were different from everyone else?
What’s even more shocking is the Midrashic commentary cited by Rashi. Not only was Moshe asking for God’s direct Divine presence to travel with the Jews, he also was asking God: Promise that You will never allow Your Divine Presence to rest on any other nation! Up until that time, prophets appeared to the other nations and offered Divine messages. Because of Moshe’s petition, all prophecies from the other nations ceased.
Why would Moshe ask for such a thing? What’s wrong with there being another nation that is communicated to by God? Shouldn’t we want the whole world to have a relationship with Hashem? Are we so proprietary and selfish as to want to deprive the world of a closeness to their Maker?
The Chatam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, d. 1839) addressed why Moshe wanted only the Jewish people to have prophecy, and why this request was related to the Golden Calf sin. Before the sin, Moshe would have been fine if God had chosen another nation to also receive the Torah. But now that the Jews sinned, Moshe was worried that if there would be another nation receiving the Torah, they might become God’s favorite nation. Maybe the Olmecs in Mexico would do a better job fulfilling the Torah’s edicts, and would never build a Golden Calf. This possibility caused Moshe great concern; he didn’t mind if other people had the Torah, but he didn’t want to make his people look bad by comparison to any other Torah-commanded nation.
Flawed but inherently holy
I have difficulty with this explanation. Who’s “team” was Moshe playing on: God’s team, or Israel’s team? Certainly, Moshe was an Israelite, but his devotion to Hashem should have trumped his loyalty to his own family. If, indeed, the Jews, this “stiff-necked people,” had character flaws that made them prone to sin, and if, indeed, there could be found another nation who did not possess this propensity towards idolatry and sin, then wouldn’t Moshe have wanted God’s Torah to be entrusted to such a superior people?! Why force God’s hand to deprive the Olmecs the opportunity of fulfilling the Torah completely, even if it meant outshining the Jews?
I suggest, therefore, that Moshe’s intention was deeper. Moshe understood the history of his people. He knew that the Jews had descended from exemplary patriarchs and matriarchs who passed down a legacy of morality and kindness.
He knew the centuries-long enslavement in Egypt, which further primed this nation of morally superior people with the requisite humility to submit themselves to Divine authority.
He reasoned: If, even after centuries of conditioning and superior genetics, the Jews are still prone to sin, imagine what would happen to a nation that did not have the great biblical patriarchs and matriarchs as their ancestors! Imagine the Olmecs being given a Torah; if the Jews failed so miserably despite their inherent greatness, then certainly the Olmecs would only distort and disobey God’s Torah in a worse way! This would invariably result in God’s anger being kindled even further, and would also result in an even greater Chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name – than the sin of the Golden Calf! The Olmec Golden Calf, reasoned Moshe, would be even bigger and more flagrantly oppositional to Hashem’s will than the Jewish one.
Us or them
This was Moshe’s appeal to Hashem: Keep us as the sole Chosen People. I know my own people’s flaws, despite our coming from excellent pedigree. I can guarantee that when we sin, we won’t descend so low as to be completely beyond redemption. But if your Divine Presence rests upon another nation, they might debase your Torah in a way far worse than us. Over the course of the centuries, other religions that mutate from Judaism will emerge.
These religions will accomplish much good, but they will also wreak some level of havoc throughout the world. If you allow the Olmecs to have the Torah, their religion will also be distorted and repackaged by others over time. Their distortions will be far more harmful to the world than anything perpetrated by the outgrowths of Judaism.
This may explain why Moshe twice inserted himself by saying, “אֲנִי וְעַמֶּךָ” – “both I and Your people,” when requesting this distinction. At first glance, it seems egotistical for Moshe to put himself before the nation, yet we know that Moshe was exceedingly humble. He was conveying that he had as much confidence in his people as he had in himself. He knew that he, as a member of the Jewish family, was up to the task to be the giver of the Torah, and all he asked was that Hashem have the same confidence in Bnei Israel that He had in Moshe.
We look at what is happening throughout the world today, especially in parts of the world that have acquired their Abrahamic religious values – or lack thereof – from the Jewish Bible. We also note the current chaotic democracy that exists in Israel today, and the unresolved problems from before October 7. It’s easy to criticize what is happening in Israel from afar; but as has been noted for decades, the world is eager to criticize Israel. Moshe’s plea to God teaches that we are still the best hope for the future of decency and humanity in the world.
Let’s do our best to live the best version of our lives using the mitzvot and values of the Torah. We will thereby strengthen Moshe’s argument on behalf of our people, and will succeed in ushering the Redemption, bb”a.