Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Rabbi David Walk
Don't you hate it when someone tells you how disappointed they are in you? That they never would have expected you to do something like that? Well, I have trouble dealing with this all too often phenomenon. These expectations that others have for us can be very burdensome. Starting with my mother, and continuing through many teachers I've had over the years (Except for Miss Forest in the third grade, she really expected very little from me, and was, therefore, rarely disappointed.), there were many circumstances when I felt that I had fallen short of some theoretical mark in a ledger which represented what I should have achieved. This shame ridden cloud may be one of our Jewish hang-ups, another manifestation of 'Jewish Guilt Syndrome', and may have its roots in this week's Torah reading.
When the Jews arrive at the foot of Mt. Sinai on the first of Sivan, 45 days out from Egypt, they are given a vision of God's high hopes for us as Divine representatives to humankind. Moshe relays to them the following message from God: And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). As a people, we have a dual role, one to act on behalf of God and the other to guide humanity. This is a powerful expression of God's high hopes for the Jewish people throughout history, and many lessons can be derived from it in terms of how we interact with both God and humanity. However, for me the most important message resides in the previous verse.
We are informed in verse five: So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. What is this 'faithfully obey'? In Hebrew it is im shamoa tishmi'u. We are told that we will gain this special connection to God if we listen to God in some double way. In a similar phrase in the second paragraph of Shma (Deuteronomy 11:13), Rashi explains that we are required to obey both older instructions we have already learned and new laws and instructions as we learn them. But back here in Exodus the Ohr Hachayim (Rav Chaim Attar, 1690-1750) initially suggests that this refers to the two sections of our Torah, we must adhere to the written material and the oral law. But later this great Moroccan commentary avers that 'if one begins to study Torah sincerely, from that point on, one will crave to hear and study more.' Serious Torah study becomes a passion for the practitioner. When one achieves that level of yearning for Torah and its message, something extraordinary happens, and that's the continuation of the verse.
We become God's segula. That's a hard term to translate. It can be related to purple, which was the expensive dye of the ancient world, only worn by royalty, or it can denote being placed in a singular position or role, like being enveloped by the triangle of the Hebrew vowel segol. Then Rav Attar gives three interpretations for this enigmatic term.
The first interpretation is the most inscrutable of the three. In the mystical world, a segula is something which achieves or solves an important task. One of the most famous segulot in the world is the red string worn by many to ward off the 'evil eye'. These are strings which have been wrapped around the marker over the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem. Some believe that these segulot have almost magical powers; others, like me, believe that the power is psychological, derived from feeling connected to some representative of strong spirituality. In any case, Rav Attar is saying that the Jews have this position in the world. One can access God's presence through the Jewish people.
The second approach to this term is more prosaic. Rulers or nations have special items which attain an aura of sanctity or respect, because of their value or symbolic importance to the people. A crown or throne could attain this status. Anyone who has visited the National Archives in Washington, DC feels this sense of awe in the presence of the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution. We, as a people, serve this same role in God's world. The Jewish people achieve the status of an artifact of God's presence in the world by our double acceptance of God's Torah at Mt. Sinai.
But it's the third idea, which most inspires me. Something happened at the foot of that Mountain, which permanently changed the Jewish nation. The Talmud expresses this metamorphosis in a mystical way: When Israel stood at Sinai, the pollution that resulted from the sin of the Tree of Knowledge left them. It never left the other nations (Avoda Zara 22b). I don't know what this zuhama was, but we were freed from some taint, just as we were freed from Egyptian bondage a month earlier, and we've never been the same, again. This pristine state of innocence combined with a continued allegiance to the Covenant of Sinai and the Torah we accepted there, transformed the Jewish nation into a 'magnet for the sparks of sanctity in the world'. Our ancestors were changed into something new and unique, and we have continued to bequeath it to our progeny. The world at large notices. Whether respected or denigrated, we Jews cannot be ignored, and we attained that notoriety during the epiphany at Sinai. This inability of the world to stop staring at us is called segula.
No matter how we translate this inscrutable term (special, precious, magical, priceless, treasured, cherished, prized, loved) or understand its significance; segula is a beloved status. It is something to be proud of. It is, as well, a responsibility. Every generation can tarnish or burnish this repute. It's up to us. Of course, the only way to be worthy of these expectations is by learning that covenant and living up to its ideals.
Monday, February 13, 2017
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