We Jews make no sense. We're completely illogical.
And when I say that, I’m not speaking about our ideas, actions or statements – that’s another story altogether. When I say that we make no sense, what I mean is that if you examine our history, and our current reality also, it just can’t be explained. So many things simply defy rational understanding. For example:
But it’s not only our history and experience that defies understanding. It’s even hard to explain what exactly we Jews are. What is that thing called “the Jewish People” – or “Am Yisrael” as we are more properly called?
Many people nowadays think of us as a religious community: a group of people who observe a religion called “Judaism”. But this is a mistake. That definition doesn’t work, because you can be a Jew even if you’re an atheist! That’s not true of other religions – there is no such thing as an atheist Christian, for example.
We also aren’t a race or ethnicity – if we were, someone who wasn’t born Jewish couldn’t join us, but people have joined the Jewish people throughout the ages, and continue to do so today – which is why by now, it’s impossible to identify a Jew by looking at their physical appearance.
It seems that the closest category we can come up with is a nation – or “Am” in Hebrew.
And in fact, our foundational document, the Torah, often refers to us by this exact term: Am Yisrael. In many ways, we are a nation – a large group of millions of people, united (mostly) by common descent, history, and heritage.
But we are also unlike all other nations – primarily because we survived for thousands of years in exile and dispersion, separated from each other, living as minorities in other countries without a land of our own, and without a common language or culture.
It seems, therefore, that we – Am Yisrael – are a unique entity, in a category all our own.
What do you call something in a category all by itself? I have a term I like to use for this, which comes from a verse in the Biblical book of Bamidbar, or Numbers: “Am Levadad”, which can be loosely translated as “a singular nation”. I use this term to describe the Jews, and also to describe an entire philosophy or worldview built around this perspective, which is supported by many biblical and rabbinic sources and by an analysis of history itself.
This is the best way to describe us - Am Levadad, the singular nation, entirely unique.
The full expression, uttered by the Gentile prophet Bilaam who tried to curse us but found his curse miraculously turned to blessings, is “הן עם לבדד ישכון, ובגויים לא יתחשב” – a singular nation that dwells alone, not to be counted among the other nations. As I said, I think this is the best way to describe us – Am Levadad, the singular nation, entirely unique.
And according to my understanding, this special group known as Am Yisrael exists for a reason – we have a historic mission to accomplish, and nothing less than the fate of all mankind rests on our shoulders. I know that’s a bold statement. But I feel justified in saying it because this perspective explains all the strange things about us we mentioned at the outset, and the most amazing thing about it, is that it’s all predicted and explained very clearly in the Torah. In other words, if you stand here today and look back on history – like I did at the beginning – it’s completely incomprehensible. But if you start from the Torah and read forward, everything makes perfect sense! I’m excited about this concept because it’s a big idea – a kind of lens through which we can look at and understand all of Jewish history, and indeed all of human history. It can help us explain our unbelievable past, our strange and incredible experience in the present, and the purpose of the Torah itself. With this insight we can realize that in our generation we are currently embarking on a whole new chapter of our path as the “Am Levadad”, with great opportunities ahead.
So let’s start with the Torah’s narrative of the very beginning of the Am Levadad.
It all began with one man – our patriarch Abraham, Avraham Avinu in Hebrew – who was given a mission. Most observant Jews know these verses, but many – perhaps most – don’t fully understand their significance.
Avraham was told לך לך – leave everyone behind, just take your immediate family, and GO – follow God, to an unknown destination. And if he did that, he was promised:
This verse establishes a few key principles:
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
This is extraordinarily significant! It tells us the purpose for which Avraham was chosen, and why his descendants would eventually become known as the “Chosen People” – they were to become the channel bringing God’s blessings to the entire world. This explains what God meant earlier,when he commanded Avraham to be a blessing.
And the implication that comes out of it is something that many observant Jews consider a completely revolutionary idea, even though it’s right there, black on white in the Torah: Avraham and the nation that came from him were indeed chosen – but this choice was not about him, or about them. Rather, they were chosen for the sake of all the other nations! כל משפחות האדמה!!
Now, how are they supposed to fulfill that role? It doesn’t say explicitly, but it seems that Avraham understood what he needed to do, because once he arrived in the land of Israel, we are told several times that he built altars to God, and ויקרא בשם ה' – he called out in the name of God.
What does that mean, that he “called out in the name of God”? It means that he began to teach about God. To simply tell people about God. At a time when almost everyone in the world was pagan, Avraham began to spread a message that eventually came to be called "monotheism": knowledge of, and trust in, the one true God who rules the entire world.
For Avraham, this idea was not just about theology – it was much more than that. The God of Avraham is good, kind, and just, and He commands us all to live our lives based on principles of kindness, justice, and holiness (and therefore, philosophers describe the specific concept that Avraham taught by the term "ethical monotheism"). And this powerful idea, the knowledge that there is one true and just God, was the blessing that Avraham received, and represented to the rest of the world: living ethically and devoting oneself to the service of God leads to a better life than anyone can have any other way. Avraham – and all his future descendants – were charged with the mission of bringing this blessing to the rest of the world.
Avraham began to spread a message that eventually came to be called "monotheism": knowledge of, and trust in, the one true God who rules the entire world.
So in his own lifetime, Avraham began to carry out that mission. But he understood that its ultimate fulfillment would happen only in the distant future, after his descendants would become “a great nation” – the Am Levadad. So that means that Avraham’s mission ultimately became the purpose and the destiny of the Jewish People.
The active phase of that mission began hundreds of years after Avraham, when, several weeks after leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. When they were assembled there, we read in the book of Shemot (Exodus), that God told them that if they would accept the Torah,
וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ
The role of a priest is to mediate between the people and God. And therefore, “ממלכת כהנים” means that the people of Israel – the Am Levadad – are meant to serve a similar role, mediating between God and the rest of humanity.
In other words, at that moment at Sinai, the mission given to Avraham became a plan of action: His children were now to become God’s messengers or agents, leading the rest of humanity by example. They were supposed to observe all of the commandments of the Torah, and to do so as a nation in the land of Israel (which, significantly, is strategically located at the intersection of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa – making it a sort of geographic center of human civilization). By doing this, Avraham’s descendants were to represent God’s message to the world.
And therefore, this explains what the title “Chosen People” actually means: We are obligated to follow all of God’s commandments – not just as individuals, but following all the laws that regulate how to run a special, unique, holy nation that can be worthy of the title “kingdom of priests”.
Each person, and each nation, has their own specific contribution to make to the world, and the Am Levadad is meant to lead them.
Now, let’s jump to the end of the story – which hasn’t happened yet, but it’s been written – among other places, in these verses from the book of Yeshayahu, Isaiah – chapter 2:
וְהָיָ֣ה׀ בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים נָכ֨וֹן יִֽהְיֶ֜ה הַ֤ר בֵּית־ה' בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הֶהָרִ֔ים וְנִשָּׂ֖א מִגְּבָע֑וֹת וְנָהֲר֥וּ אֵלָ֖יו כׇּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃
Yeshayahu sees a vision of days to come, in the future: he sees all the nations of the world come streaming to Jerusalem. And why do they come?
וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ עַמִּ֣ים רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־ה' אֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב
Here we see two things – they say they want to go up to the House of God, and they also call Him the “God of Yaakov,” referring to us, עם ישראל. So this means that when this vision is realized, the entire world will come to recognize the true God, and also to recognize our historic role as His messengers!
And why do they want to go to the Temple? The next verse answers this with words that are familiar to every Jew who goes to synagogue – but again, I suspect that most of us do not understand their implications:
וְיֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹרְחֹתָ֑יו
This is incredible! The simple reading of this verse clearly states that the nations of the world will want to learn the Torah so that they can follow it! According to this, in the future, the entire world will follow the Torah, as the conclusion of the verse indicates:
כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־ה' מִירוּשָׁלָֽ͏ִם׃
Most Jews who proudly sing these words every Shabbat in the synagogue are surprised when I point this out, but the context makes it very clear that when the Torah and the Word of God go forth from Jerusalem, they aren’t going to the Jews, but to ALL OF HUMANITY!
The simple reading of this verse clearly states that the nations of the world will want to learn the Torah so that they can follow it.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that those non-Jewish nations will become Jews, eat kosher, keep Shabbat or any of the other commandments that apply specifically to the Am Levadad, the kingdom of priests. What it does mean is that they will all seek to follow the universal commandments, teachings, and ideas contained in the Torah, which can all be summarized by the term ethical monotheism.
And once that happens, it leads to the rest of the inspiring vision:
וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבוֹתָ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֽוֹתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹא יִשָּׂ֨א ג֤וֹי אֶל גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹֽא יִלְמְד֥וּ ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃
This, then, is the culmination of history – the concept that later came to be called ימות המשיח, the “messianic era”, a time when all of humanity will be united and there will be peace on earth. How will that come about, according to Isaiah? Through all the nations learning – and following – the Torah that was given to the Am Levadad – to the Jewish People, עם ישראל.
In other words, Isaiah’s messianic prophecy is the end of the story that began with Avraham! And the perfection of the world is the blessing that Avraham was chosen to bring to the nations.
This is what, in an ideal sense, was supposed to happen. But the Torah also addresses the eventuality that Am Yisrael might not always faithfully represent the Torah and its messages. Since the Am Levadad exists to bring the blessings of ethical monotheism to the world, its failure to fulfill that mission would have disastrous results.
In several lengthy passages – most notably near the ends of the books of Vayikra and Devarim (Leviticus and Deuteronomy) – the Torah predicts with uncanny accuracy the destruction of a national entity that had lost its way, and the long centuries of exile and Diaspora, during which the Am Levadad ceased to exist as a nation, and became individual communities who observed a religion called “Judaism”. These prophetic passages – which were so accurate in their predictions that today, you can read them as history – explain all the seemingly irrational things we mentioned at the beginning – especially how and why we suffered so much in exile, and still, against all odds, survived.
And in order to survive in exile, we had to develop systems to protect our continuity.
This was all good and very important. But somewhere along the way, it distracted many of us from the prophecies, the mission, the big picture, our purpose, and our destiny.
But now, we’re coming back home, to the land of Israel. We’ve established an independent state here again, and about half of us have already returned and joined the project of rebuilding our Am Levadad into an actual “Am” once again – a real nation with its own land, state, and national institutions – a nation that still is, and must remain, the singular Am Levadad: a nation unlike all others.
Somewhere along the way, it distracted many of us from the prophecies, the mission, the big picture, our purpose, and our destiny.
Those constructs that we created in exile protected us, enriched us, and enabled our survival. And we need to maintain them, and build upon them, moving forward. And together with that, we must also realize that the time has arrived to return our attention to so many parts of the Torah that we weren’t able to observe, or even think about very much, in exile.
We’re living now in A NEW ERA, THE PRECURSOR TO THE REBUILDING OF THE TEMPLE AND TO REACHING THE FUTURE VISION OF WORLD PEACE AND UNITY.
It's time to return our focus to that central purpose that God revealed to Avraham, the mission given to us at Sinai, which is ultimately the mission of every single Jew: to bring the blessings of ethical monotheism as everlasting truth to the whole world.
HOW are we supposed to do that? Through living that reality, observing all aspects of the Torah. Through showing our faith, sharing it with each other and perhaps also with non-Jews, through demonstrating an elevated life and culture and society by living according to all of the Torah’s laws and principles. This is especially relevant as we continue to reconstitute our national life here in the State of Israel, as well as to all of our communities around the world.
We’re out of time now, and there’s still so much more to say. As I said earlier, you can find more in-depth discussions about this on my website – and I also plan to add additional content there as time goes on. So if these ideas intrigued or inspired you, or even if you just want to learn more about this approach, I invite you to join me at rabbihaber.net to continue the conversation!
I actually think the polytheist and the atheist are quite similar to each other – in fact, they’re almost identical! One might even describe atheism as a special form of polytheism.
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s realize that in classic polytheistic conceptions of the world – even if there was often a “head” or “chief” god, there was no single ruler in charge of everything. Instead, the polytheist viewed the universe as a chaotic place controlled by various powers, which he personified and called “gods”. While the specific names and mythologies varied from one region or culture to another, there were striking similarities between them. They all believed in a pantheon of gods, each of which was thought to be responsible for a different natural or human phenomenon: there was usually a sun god and a moon god, a god of wind, a god of rain, a god (or often, goddess) of fertility, a god of war, a god of love, and so on. And at least in ancient times, these gods often looked and behaved very much like humans: They were jealous of each other, fought with one another, formed alliances, and deceived one another.
To survive in such a world, the polytheist would worship the various gods and try to figure out what they needed so he could win their favor and entice them to act in his interest. He might also engage in magical rituals that he believed could harness various forces to help him.
Now let’s compare this to the way a modern atheist sees the world. Unlike the polytheist, she doesn’t believe in gods with personalities and emotions. But beyond that distinction, her vision of the world is very similar. She also sees a chaotic universe in which various forces interact and clash with one another. Her universe, like that of the polytheist, has no ruler, and nobody in charge.
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