Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer GurkowCourtesy

On the face of it, one can be both, but when you think about it, you see that we must choose. Choices can only be made between two equal options. When the options are unequal, there is no real choice—you obviously opt for the superior one. If I offered you two bars of gold or two chunks of trash, you could choose one. But if I offered you a bar of gold and a chunk of trash, you wouldn’t have a choice. The gold is your only real choice.

If there are two people and neither is related to you, you can choose which one to embrace (if you only intend to embrace one). But if one is your child and the other is a stranger, you don’t have a choice. Of course, you will embrace your child.

This makes it curious that G-d would state the following: “You are children of G-d, your L-rd, do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your head because of the dead. For you are a holy nation onto G-d your L-rd, and G-d chose you to be His treasure from among all the nations of the world.”

G-d calls us His children and His chosen in the same breath. How does that work? To answer that, we will ask another question: These two passages are about being holy, being chosen, and being G-d’s children. How do cutting and shaving related to any of this?

Excessive Mourning


Many biblical commentators waded into this question over the years. Today, I want to share a fascinating and powerful explanation by Rabbi Moshe Alshich, Safed’s 14th-century chief rabbi.

Death is a legitimate reason to mourn. We mourn the loss of life—the cessation of a person’s existence. One moment, he exists. The next moment, he doesn’t. But that is only if death spells our cessation What if death does not signify a cessation but merely a transition?

Suppose a divorced couple shares amicable custody of their children. Every time the children leave one of the parents, that parent is sad, and the other rejoices. But the sad parent doesn’t mourn. They miss their children, but they know the children benefit from seeing both parents. They miss their children, but they are happy for them too.

The same applies here. We are not just living bodies. We are souls that reside in bodies. The soul is G-d’s child, and when the body dies, the soul returns to its Father in Heaven. Yes, we miss our loved ones, but they have not ceased to exist. They have merely changed locations. They used to be on earth, now they are in Heaven with G-d. And we know they are better off for it. We miss them, but we are happy for them.

The ancient pagans viewed the bodily experience as the sum of human existence. Thus, when someone died, they cut their body and shaved their hair to symbolize their loved one’s ceased existence. Jews also mourn their loved ones, but only because we miss them, not because we grieve the cessation of their existence. The body is just an outer shell. The soul is our primary persona. And the soul continues. Thus, children of G-d, who have a soul, should not cut their bodies, or shave their hair in mourning.

G-d’s Children


Based on what we learned, our souls are G-d’s children, not our bodies. We may not harm our bodies in grief because it demonstrates a lack of faith in the fact that our soul—G-d’s child—lives on.

With respect to their material experience, all people are alike. We love our families, work for a living, have hopes and aspirations, goals and benchmarks, successes and failures. We all rejoice when we succeed and bleed when we are cut. We all have egos and hangups, strengths and weaknesses. We are part of the human family and more alike than we think.

That is the surface. However, the Torah comes along and tells us that there is a deeper stratum on which Jews are different. Under the surface lies the Jewish soul—the spark of G-d. Just as children are offspring of their parents, so are souls offspring of G-d. A spark from the main flame.

It is on this level that we are markedly different from the rest. This is why every other nation conquered by Rome surrendered when the fight was over, but the Jews fought on. The Jews weren’t fighting for independence or prosperity. They were fighting for their souls. The Romans had destroyed the Temple, and the Jews wanted to rebuild it. Their bodies would have willingly surrendered, as did every other nation of bodies. But their souls wouldn’t let them rest.

G-d’s Chosen


If our bodies are the same as that of other nations and only our souls are related to G-d, why does Judaism place so many restrictions on the physical experience? Why may our bodies only eat Kosher? Our souls are holy children of G-d. But our bodies are just like other nations. If they may eat non-Kosher, why can’t we? If they may eat on Yom Kippur, why can’t we? If they may work on Shabbat, why can’t we?

This answer is also found in our passage. The very passage that tells us that we are G-d’s children also tells us that we are chosen. We are G-d’s children on account of our souls. But we are chosen on account of our bodies. Our bodies are as spiritually lame and mundane as the bodies of all other nations, but G-d chose our bodies. Indeed, a choice can only occur when the options are equal. G-d looked down and saw the equal bodies of Jews and non-Jews. He chose the Jewish body.

He did not make our body holy, He left that to us. He chose us to be the ones who would behave according to His prescriptions. Yes, Non-Jews may work on Shabbat and eat non-Kosher, etc. But G-d chose to make our bodies different. We must adhere to a higher standard because He chose us. We will never know why He chose us. It wasn’t for our souls. It was for our bodies, and we don’t know why.

It is not a burden to be chosen. It is an honor, and we embrace it willingly and enthusiastically. To be summoned to a Divine standard is a distinct privilege, and we embrace the opportunity.

Answering The Questions


We now understand why being G-d’s children and being chosen leads to the prohibition of cutting our bodies in mourning. Others may cut their bodies, but we may not because our bodies were chosen by G-d. Also, because we have souls, our loved ones live on after their bodily deaths.

This also explains why the chapter that follows G-d’s deceleration that we are chosen presents the laws of kashrut. Keep kosher; don’t put foods unacceptable to G-d in the body that G-d chose.

And now to our first question—how can we be both G-d’s children and G-d’s chosen? The answer is elegant, obvious, and simple. One person can’t be G-d’s child and G-d’s chosen, but we are not one person.

We are an amalgam of two—body and soul. Our souls are G-d’s children. Our bodies are G-d’s chosen.