Everybody thinks that they are special.
Here’s how the Torah expresses Jewish specialness in relation to the Land of Israel:
“For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the Land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your labour [lit. leg] like a vegetable garden. But the land you are about to cross into and possess – a land of hills and valleys – soaks up its water from the rains of the heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” (Deuteronomy 11:10-12)
The next passage, which we use as the second paragraph of the Shema goes on to explain that rain is a direct reward for obeying God’s laws. Traditional Jewish commentators read a great deal into this idea of God’s special oversight of Israel. Here’s Bachya ben Asher, a 14th century Spanish commentator:
“Of course God pays attention to all lands, but what is important is that the majority of God’s oversight is there [Eretz Yisrael] and from there it spreads out to the other countries. Just as the heart is located in the centre of the body and is the centre of life, and from there life spreads out to the other limbs.”
He goes on to say that whilst astrological forces control the destiny of other lands, God directly oversees Eretz Yisrael, without intermediaries. Bachya and others celebrate this close relationship with God in which we pray and direct our efforts to God, who in turn replies directly to us with rainfall.
Yuval Noah Harari suggests in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that this assumption of specialness, is a common human belief. In fact quite a few cultures have a name for themselves that indicates that they alone are human, while others are simply, well, other. For Jews, our chosen people shtick doesn’t make us special. In fact, it makes us predictably like everyone else.
This privileging of ourselves and the othering of everyone else is not only predictable, but beneficial. It is a necessary part of our interior make-up and has served us well from an evolutionary perspective.
Firstly, in a hostile world we need to have a story about why we exist and how we are still around. We also need to feel that we exercise some control about what happens to us.
Secondly, religion, and the belief in some kind of beneficent – or at the very least, just – God-figure allows us to come together and to co-operate for our own collective mutual self-interest. It’s the introduction of a powerful third-party into this arrangement – a God or gods – that makes this co-operation possible.
Thirdly, and rather fascinatingly, we all need a certain amount of self-delusion. In Born Liars: why we can’t live without deceit, Ian Leslie explains that, in purely objective terms, we are generally closer to the truth when depression causes us to see ourselves as insignificant and powerless. What looks like healthy self-esteem generally includes a lavish dollop of self-deception.
Believing that we – collectively – are special is a common feature of most religions. Generally, says Harari, religion has been a force for good rather than bad in human history because of the trust and opportunity for collaboration that it offers. Perhaps paradoxically it spurs us to treat others better because we believe at some level that we will be held to account. (Of course I’m well aware of the other side of the equation: the destruction that can be wrought in the name of religion.)
So when the Torah appears embarrassingly jingoistic and when some of our commentators justify this by using the science of their day to explain what makes the Jewish people or Eretz Yisrael special, we are right to squirm. But we may also recognise that thinking ourselves special is actually one of the things that makes us most human. We can’t achieve anything if we don’t feel like we matter.
Of course that’s not the whole story and we ought still to do as Simcha Bunim of Peshischa recommended:
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.
When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”