When instructing Moses of his mission to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt, God tells Moses that the first thing he must say to Pharaoh is, "My son, my first-born, is Israel." (Exodus 4:22) This famous verse is the first place in the Torah that speaks of the idea that the Jewish people are, in some unique sense, the son of God.
How is this to be understood? Like all human beings, the Jewish people, are descendants of Adam and Eve. We all come from the same ancestors, so in what sense can we be said to be the children of God, as distinct from the rest of humanity?
The key to understanding this is a concept that may be best summarized in a classic teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (18th century), "A person is located where he places his thoughts" (ספר הבעש"ט נח:נו). This means that our thoughts create our spiritual reality. Our relationship with God is dependent, almost entirely, on our achieving a proper mental perception of that relationship. Thus, for example, when a person thinks himself to be in the presence of God, then this becomes his spiritual reality; at that moment, he is standing before the Divine Presence.
This is a central concept in Jewish thought and is particularly important in understanding the Jewish approach to prayer. It helps explain, for example, why, in prayer, we engage in practices that mimic standing before a human king. Such practices help solidify our mental perception that we are standing before God, the true King, thereby bringing about the actual reality of God's presence.
This concept also explains why the Torah places so much importance on avoiding incorrect conceptions of God, as in idolatry and heresy. To the degree that our conception of God is incorrect, our relationship with God is weakened.
|R' Meir Simcha of Dvinsk|
In a similar comment, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (d.1966) expands on this idea, pointing out that the time will come when all mankind will properly acknowledge their Father, and at that time all mankind will have the status of "children of God." However, even then, the Jewish people will continue to have the unique status of God's first-born son.