by HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
Two fundamental values of Judaism are expressed in the Parsha: the giving of the Torah and the selection of Am Yisrael as the chosen nation, "You shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples." (Shemot 19:5) The question arises, was God's choice of Yisrael a result of their acceptance of the Torah, "Na'aseh venishma - We will do and we will listen," as opposed to the other nations who rejected the Torah? Or, just the opposite, was Hashem's choice of Yisrael the foundation for their receiving the Torah? The text that Chazal established for the bracha on the Torah shows that Yisrael was chosen first, and the selection is not contingent on our initiative or actions. We bless God, "Who selected us from all the peoples, and," -- as a result -- "gave us His Torah." Similarly, we say in Shacharit, "Blessed is He, our God, Who created us for His glory, separated us from those who stray, and," -- as such -- "gave us the Torah of truth."
This idea is explicit in Tana D'vei Eliyahu:
He said to me: Rebbe, "There are two things in this world which I love completely, and they are the Torah and Yisrael, but I do not know which one to prefer." I said to him: My son, generally people say that the Torah is first, as it says, "Hashem made me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way." (Mishlei 8:22) But I say Yisrael is first, as it says, "Israel is holy to Hashem, the first of His crop." (Yirmiya 2:3)
This perspective is the foundation of the maxim of Chazal, "A Jew, even when he sins, is still a Jew." If the selection of Yisrael were to depend on their deeds, then when one sins, he would remove himself from the holiness of Israel. But, since the selection of Bnei Yisrael does not depend on their deeds, it remains even if a Jew sins. Conversely, when a gentile performs mitzvot, he does not acquire the status of Yisrael, as his actions are merely insignificant movements, since he is lacking the inherent, special nature of Yisrael.
This same concept applies to Klal Yisrael as a whole. "Hashem has distinguished you today to be for Him a treasured people." (Devarim 26:18) The Ohr Hachaim explains that Hashem declared Yisrael to be the chosen nation, so that even if another nation improves its deeds, and attempts to join with the Shechina (Divine Presence), they will not achieve the status of Yisrael. Conversely, even if there will be a time that Yisrael angers the Creator, Hashem will not replace them with another nation.
This concept is reflected in the Tanach, as well, as Rabah b. Rav Huna comments (Yalkut Shimoni II:312): This is the distinction between Yisrael and non-Jews. Regarding Yisrael it says, "I will be a God to them, and they will be a people to Me" (Yechezkel 37:27), whereas regarding non-Jews, it says, "For who then would embolden his heart to approach Me ... You will be a people unto Me, and I will be a God unto you." (Yirmiya 30:21?22) The Maharal explains (Netzach Yisrael, ch. 11) that Hashem chose Yisrael for their essence and not for their good deeds, and naturally seeks after them. But, regarding non-Jews, it first says, "You will be a people unto Me," that when their deeds will be good, then Hashem will bring them close to Him.
The same idea is alluded to in the pasuk, "He perceived ("hibit") no iniquity in Yaakov and saw ("ra'ah") no perversity in Yisrael." (Bamidbar 23:21) The Netziv explains: The name, "Yisrael," connotes the great people of the nation, where sin is not found even with an external look (ra'ah). However, regarding "Yaakov," the common Jew, even though exterior flaws are sometimes evident, after looking deeper (hibit) into their essence, iniquity is not perceived.
We, who follow the ways of Hashem, must not search for the sins of others, but rather we must look deeply to seek merits and positive traits. The Chazon Ish (Yoreh De'ah 12), writes about the wicked people of our generation that the law of "moridim" (that certain sinners are eliminated by Beit Din) only applies when Divine Providence is evident to all, through miracles and Bat Kol (Heavenly voice). When Hashem's Presence is more hidden, though, and faith in Hashem is not present among the general public, this law does not apply. Our responsibility is to draw Am Yisrael to the light of Torah with chains of love to the best of our ability.