Taste of Torah: Yitro

February 13, 2020

.וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִית—וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ

Now therefore, if you will listen indeed to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be My treasure from among all nations; for all the earth is Mine. 

(Exodus 19:5)

 

In a 1789 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson once expressed a wish to see the US Constitution rewritten every 19 years, in order to truly represent the living population which it sought to govern. To be a meaningful contract between American citizens, Jefferson argued, the Constitution had to be re-ratified in every generation. 

In Parashat Yitro, the people received revelation, and God urges them to accept the Torah—both the substance and symbol of the covenant that has just been made on Mount Sinai. If the people assent, they will be dearer to God than they can imagine. 

Here in our parashah, the phrase “am segulah” may be both comforting and charged. The image provided from our verse in the Exodus text is a gorgeous one: the Israelites gather close to God right after the moment of revelation, held as the treasure of the Holy One while they listen to God’s voice directly. 

Traditionally, this verse has been interpreted as a signifier of the Jewish people’s “chosenness,” a description of our close (and possibly, according to some theologians, exclusive) communal relationship with God. But if we are inclined to accept the idea of chosenness, I believe it is incumbent upon us to look closely at the structure of the verse itself. 

“And now, IF you listen…” The promise of our being God’s am segulah is, according to the verse, contingent upon our actions: our listening, and our upholding of covenant. 

In the 9th-century midrashic text Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, this verse is quoted in the statement of one Rabbi Tzadok: “Whoever does not make Havdalah at the end of Shabbat…shall never see a sign of blessing. Everyone who makes Havdalah…[however], the Holy Blessed One calls [that person] holy, to be God’s segulah. (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer 20:8)

From both our parashah’s text and the assertion of Rabbi Tzadok, we can learn that our treasured relationship with God is not something automatic. Instead, the status of segulah is one that is intimately linked to our ritual actions, and to our willingness to incline our ears towards the voice of God. To be an am segulah—a treasured people—is not to find ourselves among those who have been chosen, but to instead be the people who choose.

Our foundational document, our Torah, is a living text. Like Jefferson’s vision of the Constitution, we must in every generation engage in its ongoing interpretation and choose to live out its words in our own lives, ratifying the brit made at Sinai long ago. Our treasured relationship is not a passive inheritance, but instead an outgrowth of the relationship that began at Sinai—it is we who must choose to continue. 

Written By Margo Hughes-Robinson

Margo Hughes-Robinson is a third-year student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A New Yorker by birth, she grew up in communities all over the United States before attending Clark University, whe...