Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Walk Article-Yitro



Rabbi David Walk


            For those of us who are used to Jew-speak, there is a cognitive dissonance in this week's Torah reading.  The problem revolves around the word segula.  This word has come to be defined as a means to receive Divine help or blessing. This access of Divine power can be accomplished by wearing an object or charm, but can also be achieved by performing an act or reciting a phrase.  Perhaps the most famous segula is the red string people wear to ward off the evil eye.  Oh, but there are so many more.  Here are but a few examples:  getting the synagogue honor of opening the ark is a segula for easy child birth for the honoree's wife, giving charity to Reb Meir Ba'al Hanes is a segula for finding lost items, drinking the wine from sheva brachot is a segula for getting married, being the bearers of the baby at a Brit Mila is a segula for having one's own children, and the list goes on and on.  There are websites in both Hebrew and English with long lists of these special merits.  Let's ignore the fact that I'm skeptical about the effectiveness of all this, and look at the following problematic verse.  'Now if you will obey me and keep My covenant, you will be My own segula from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to Me (Exodus 19:5).'  This verse together with our normal usage of the term segula conjures up an almost blasphemous image of our God wearing Jews around a Divine wrist.  How can it be that God needs any special talisman to achieve anything?  We must have a major definitional problem here.

            Remain calm (or as Aaron Rodgers famously announced, 'Relax.'), I've got about 750 words to resolve the crisis.  Before I begin answering this question, I'd like to mention the simple meaning of the term in our context, and that is 'treasure'.  When the verse has God announcing that the Jewish people are a segula, this means that we are God's special possession.  We are God's most valuable creation in this world.  And now back to the problem, my biggest help in the endeavor is the Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (Reb Chayim ibn Attar, 1696-1750).  He gives three definitions to this difficult term, and the first is most helpful in solving our problem.  He says that this term describes a situation or article which doesn't follow the natural norms.  The great rabbi goes on to explain that the term implies that God is assuring us that our destiny will not follow the expected trajectory of other peoples.  Our fate is to tread unexpected pathways.  So, too, someone who's been told that they won't have children or that they'll never find that lost watch can use these segulot (charms or rituals) to access Divine largesse.  According to the verse when we obey God we are in a charmed zone called the Segula Zone (cue the theme music).

            But the great Moroccan rabbi goes on to explain other ideas.  He avers that the term implies that we are uniquely dedicated to God.  This singular relationship is expressed in the Torah regulations which will be bestowed upon us in the next few chapters.  We achieve this distinctive status by avoiding the items or activities which God has deemed to be spiritually noxious, and by engaging in those pursuits which God has declared to be spiritually rewarding.  God has designated an exclusive precinct which we alone can enter because of the synergy between God's beneficence and our loyalty.

            The holy Ohr Hachayim gives a third approach.  In this third path, he explains that this exceptional status is the result of the extraordinary circumstances of the epiphany at Sinai.  During the bombast and pyrotechnics of the giving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai the Jews were transformed.  This effect removed the negative impact (zuhama, pollution) of the original sin of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden.  We were back at the pristine state of innocence which erased all disparagement and doubt from our spiritual outlook.  Now, this status wasn't long lived.  Alas, we, too, fell again with the Sin of the Golden Calf, but in our collective experience remained this memory of innocence, unknown to all other humans.  This reality made us capable of sensing spirituality beyond the normal parameters of human abilities.  So, we seek and sense the holy where ever it may reside.  However, even we can only access this special talent when we obey God's Law.

            This term segula is the perfect one to describe this phenomenon.  For those of you who hated learning Hebrew grammar, please forgive me.  The word is related to segol, which you may recall is the three dot, triangular mark under letters which signifies the sound of 'e' like in 'set' or 'fed'.  This configuration, unlike any other of the nikudot or dots under words seems to form a shape.  These three dots describe a polygon which determines a unique space within a plane.  This separating off of a space on a flat surface hints at the idea of God placing us in a unique location distinct from all other spaces and areas.  We are in our own discrete place, apart from the rest of humanity.  The term hints at the dots that describe the area, which sets us apart, making us God's beloved, precious possession.

            What does this designation demand of us?  Some treasures just sort of sit there to be admired, like a piece of art, others are expected to entertain in some way, like a great performer, while others may have been assigned a task, like a hero or soldier.  The label anticipated a certain role or mission that we've been assigned.  I like that last explanation.  We are eternally on God's radar, and we must be vigilant to perform God's bidding.   We have been designated by God to put ourselves into a holy area of existence.  It's a privilege and responsibility.  And we should always push ourselves to get into the zone, the Segula Zone.