Sigh. I am up way too late. It is probably a sin to be up this late at night or early in the morning. Yet it all began because I wanted to finish reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman and finally gave up with 40 more pages to go… I found myself thinking, however, of a subject I had not for a long time: What does it mean to say the Jews are the Chosen People? And why is it that such men as Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha could not be called blessed as well?
A long time ago, I read a portion of Britannica about the “Suffering Servant Psalm” in Isaiah, Isaiah 53. For once I will let you look it up yourself. It speaks of a messiah. Yet (and the Encyclopedia has changed since), in Judaism there is a sense in which the chosen one could be the People of Israel rather than an individual. Well, of course, even if you are bent on having an individual be the messiah, there are other passages which speak of the Jewish people as a “Chosen People” or a “Holy Nation.” And all those years ago I wondered if perhaps the reason the Jews were Chosen was because the Jews loved God more than any other People, they chose their God by choosing to suffer for God down the ages.
In a way, the idea that people find God on their own, that God is courted and loved and chosen Himself–that appealed to me, because I imagined that the Prophets of foreign faiths might have sought out God, and found chosenness in their way. The image of Mohammad in his cave meditating and praying is particularly this way. Chilly and in a state of ecstasy he believed the God he longed for had finally answered his call…
In the Name of thy Lord, who created—
Created man from a blood-clot,
For the Lord is bountiful,
Who taught by the Pen,
Taught man what he knew not.
According to W. Montgomery Watts this is said to be the first portion “revealed” to Mohammad of the Quran. I hear in it the echo of Isaiah, though it is thought to be the words of the Redactor,
A voice rings out: “Proclaim!”
Another asks: “What shall I proclaim?”
All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like flowers of the field:
Grass withers, flowers fade
When the breath of the LORD blows upon them.
Indeed, man is but grass:
Grass withers, flowers fade—
But the word of our God is always fulfilled.
Likewise Buddha under his Banyan tree meditates to find his hard-won illumination, albeit one which denies more than it endorses. Buddha denies caste and the existence of Brahmin–and yet at a later date, if you believe Karen Armstrong, the Mahayana Buddhist assembly denied that nirvana meant absolute non-existence. This is even though–if I recall–when Buddha is asked in the Dhammapada if the expiration of the self is like the smoke from a fire: where does it go? Buddha says this question is a question which is irrelevant: the final fate of the self, though he teaches its ultimate negation, is–in my interpretation–unknowable. Perhaps in cutting away at the Hindu religion to find the Truth which illuded him, he came to a form of quietism that for some is more satisfying than an elaborate system of dogmas.
Zoroaster is a figure whom though I did cite him I am ashamed to say I did so without having read the Avesta (outside of the Gathas) or his biography, though I own both. I have read the Zoroastrian The King of Kings by Firdausi–but it is not about the figure of Zoroaster himself. He is a figure who is in history’s mist, but I believe that he–like Mohammad and Buddha–began as a religious seeker and was not called upon first.
Jesus is so well known a figure in the west that it seems difficult to say anything new about him. However, I will say that like these other men he was neither old nor young, and that in one telling of his life, for him to find God he needed first to purge himself of sinfulness by spending forty days and forty nights in the wilderness by being tested by Satan himself. More, during his time preaching, there is a story that Jesus once asked to be alone, leaving behind even his devoted disciples to take a reprieve from the demands of his crowds of followers. Gethsemane, the place where he went before he was taken to be crucified, was also a place where Jesus went for alone time. Though the New Testament gives us Jesus’ final prayer and intimate thoughts, there is a sense in which for Jesus is alone–and his disciples fall asleep leading Jesus to observe, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Also in this moment leading up to his magnum opus, Jesus tells God that despite his fears, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”
Moses is unique among all these figures in being old and not youthful when his mission began–the burning bush. He is also a reluctant prophet. He did not seek God; God sought him. Perhaps because of this he should be seen as a kind of Grandfather, a kind of Orthodox Zaydie to these other figures: though different a kindred spirit. The People of Israel likewise have an ancient tradition–but then, even the youngest of all the traditions whose prophet has been named, Islam, is by now over 1,000 years old. Yes, the teachings of these prophets now have gray hairs, and yet to dismiss them casually is to cheapen something about the humanity they seek to uplift. Perhaps Israel’s tradition rightly seen champions the others:
For as the earth puts out buds,
and as the garden gives growth to the seeds which are planted in it,
so the Lord will make righteousness
and praise to be flowering before all the nations.
Isaiah says the flowering in the days of the messiah shall be the days when the flowering of the LORD’s words are “before all the nations” but I like to think this could be interpreted as meaning “the flowering of all the nations.” I hope that is not too extreme a thought.
I have mentioned before a Midrash I found in the Sefer ha-Aggadah. God, it says, created a Garden for the sake of the Lily–the Jewish people. Brambles got into the Garden, and they could not be removed, lest the Lily be destroyed also. So it was the Garden was made for the sake of the Lily. Yet–and here is the important point–there may be other flowers for which God created the Garden. God created the World for the Lily–but for the other flowers, also.