Rabbi Chaim Segal, zt”l, the veteran menahel of Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, is said to have once asked the rosh yeshivah, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, “What is the single most important teaching to transmit to the new generation of American students?” His reply was terse and immediate: “That we are the Am Hanivchar.”
So while it is clear that this topic was of the utmost importance to Rav Hutner, there is not one published ma’amar or even a word-of-mouth tradition from him on this subject. It would therefore be presumptuous to claim any approach as the definitive Rav Hutner position on the election of Israel.
However, Rav Hutner did speak a great deal about the uniqueness of Israel. The rosh yeshivah spent much time defining what he generally referred to as Knesses Yisrael. He also explored deeply the purpose of Am Yisrael. Perhaps most importantly to this topic, he spoke and wrote much about havdalah—the dissociation of Israel from the nations. Through a study of his views of these cognate subjects, we may come to appreciate Rav Hutner’s understanding of the concept of Am Hanivchar as well.
The Creation of Am Yisrael
Although Klal Yisrael was brought forth in the year 2448 after Creation, our Sages make it clear that the very first word of Genesis—Bereishis—suggests the Midrashic explication “because of Israel who are called ‘Reishis’ or ‘First.’” The implication of this teaching is that the nation of Israel’s existence was predestined and necessary to the world. What is the nature of this “necessity”? One aspect, based upon the teachings of the Gaon of Vilna, relates to the name of God mentioned in the beginning of Creation: “In the beginning Elokim created.” As Rashi points out, Elokim is the name associated with din or judgment (1:1). Only later in Creation is the name YKVK added (2:4). The reason is that “in the beginning God thought to create the world with din (judgment) alone. When He saw that the world could not exist in such a condition, He added the trait of mercy.”
The Gaon uses this midrash to explain another well-known Chazal. “When Moshe Rabbeinu saw Rebbi Akiva being tortured to death, he asked, ‘Is this the reward for such devotion to Torah?’ Hashem replied: ‘This was my original intention’” (Menachos 29b). According to the Gra, “original intention” refers to the world of Elokim, the cosmos of absolute justice. Rav Hutner explains that one of the distinctions between Am Yisrael and the nations is that as a people we are able to survive in the rarefied atmosphere of pure din. It is not only Rebbi Akiva who was able to live and die on that level but the nation itself (Pachad Yitzchak, [henceforth PY] Rosh Hashanah 4:13).
We can readily see that Rav Hutner’s view of Am Hanivchar has nothing to do, God forbid, with some perverse sort of Aryanism. Not only are we not claiming any more rights or privileges than other nations, we are proudly asserting our adherence to an infinitely higher standard.
…as a people we are able to survive in the rarefied atmosphere of pure din.
We return to an issue alluded to earlier. If Israel represents the purpose of Creation, why did two and a half millennia pass before it appeared on the world scene? This is because of the Divine approach known as “Sof ma’aseh bemachshavah techilah”—“The end in Creation was the first in intention” (Lecha Dodi). Thus, Shabbos is not an afterthought to the six days of Creation but its natural culmination. Israel, too, could not exist in the beginning since the world required a multi-step process that would inevitably lead to its emergence from the world of thought into the universe of reality (PY, Pesach 74:3).
Knesses Yisrael’s relation to the world of thought manifests itself in another divergence from the nations as well. Only for Israel is a thought considered equivalent to an action (see Kiddushin 40a). The source of this rather surprising distinction is the oneness of the nation of Israel with God and the Torah (Kudsha Brich Hu veYisrael veoreisa chad hu). Although Hashem is the Creator of all, He is One only with His people. Therefore, when they perform His will, the action is merely the final external manifestation of the reality of that oneness (PY, Shavuot 4:7; 10:5).
An early example of this principle was the Akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak Avinu, one of the seminal events in Jewish history. Although in effect Yitzchak was never actually sacrificed, the terminology used by Chazal to describe the event indicates that it was something that actually occurred. Thus, for example, our Sages, describing the merit resulting from the Akeidah, say that Yitzchak’s “ashes are piled on the altar” (Rashi, Vayikra 26:42). What ashes? Wasn’t the Akeidah aborted? However, Knesses Yisrael, by submitting to the exacting and demanding rigors of middat hadin, living, suffering—often perishing—in the dangerous yet consecrated dimension of pure Elokim, earns the right to have its intentions count as actions (PY, Pesach 75:12 and Ma’amarei Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos 76:9-12).
Here, too, we understand Rav Hutner’s vision of Am Hanivchar to be a uniqueness born of responsibility and an acceptance of a higher calling. To earn the right to have your thoughts count as actions, you must be prepared to submit to the most critical of criteria. You must negate your own identity and subjugate your needs and aspirations to those of the Almighty. It is because we, as a nation, are one with Hashem that our essence is totally subsumed in His. That relationship changes and uplifts us, even as it sometimes subjects us to unparalleled tragedy. This is a theme to which Rav Hutner often returns and which occupies a significant portion of his teachings concerning Am Yisrael (e.g., PY Shavuos, 2:7, 9, 11; 8:24; 10:5; 21:12; 42:5; Pesach, 75:2, 9, 12; Yom Hakippurim 25:7).
We come, finally, to the eschatological place of Am Yisrael. One can state without exaggeration that the most famous passage in the Torah, which has been the clarion call of the Jewish people through the ages, is Shema Yisrael—Hear O Israel! et cetera (Devarim 6:4). Rashi interprets the verse as a distinguishing point between Israel and the nations:
The Lord, who is our God now and not the God of the other nations, He will be in the future One Lord, as it is stated, “For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord” (Tzefania 3:9).
Rav Hutner’s understanding of this passage is that the prophet is predicting that the path through which the nations will come to recognize God will be the road that leads to Am Yisrael. His source for this explication is the Rambam’s oft-censored analysis of the place of Christianity and Islam in preparing the world for Mashiach. Citing this verse in Tzefania, the Rambam writes,
All these are only to help smooth the road for the King Mashiach and to rectify the world to serve God together as it is said, “Then I will turn … et cetera.” How will this happen? The entire world will already have been full of discussion of Mashiach…. (Hilchot Melachim 11:4, Frankel ed.).
Rav Hutner notes that both Christianity and Islam’s contributions to the awareness of Mashiach were developed in the homes of the Avot. Both Yishmael and Esav, despite their deficiencies, retained some shred of understanding of the truth from the house of Avraham. Even the role they have to play in eternity flows from their connection to Am Yisrael. Being chosen, far from leading to rewards in this world, confirms only the status of spiritual pioneer. Israel’s role as the Chosen People is a threat to no one. On the contrary, it allows the nations of the world to discover their place in the infinite scheme. Hashem will indeed turn to all the nations, but their teachers and guides will be those who have suffered through Crusades, pogroms and Holocausts, thereby earning their noble title. At the end of time, Israel will lead all back to Hashem. The climax of all history, the resolution of all troubles and the achievement of all noble goals will flow from the Chosen Nation to all who have learned the poignant lessons of that long journey (Ma’amorei Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos 114).
Rabbi Feitman is the rabbi of Congregation Kehillas Bais Yehudah Tzvi in Cedarhurst, New York.