‘Do you trust me?’ This is often a loaded question, without a clear or safe answer. In Disney’s Aladin, it’s asked by a conman turned hero. Sometimes just asking the question is an invitation to trouble. Outside of a very limited group (mostly relatives), my inclination would be to answer that query with a skeptical, ‘We’ll see.’ To a certain extent, God is asking that question to our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah reading.
God tells B’nei Yisrael, ‘And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shmot 19:5 & 6).’ In a very real sense, God is asking the Jews, ‘Do you trust Me?’
Let’s look more closely at the deal being offered. The English doesn’t adequately represent the Hebrew. In the original, the verse begins: V’ATA IM SHAMOA TISHMAU. This could be rendered: If you will obey Me faithfully (JPS), if you will truly heed My voice (Robert Alter), Now if you will pay careful attention to what I say (Complete Jewish Bible).
Here’s the problem: the Hebrew (SHAMOA TISHMAU) really means, ‘listen (now) and will listen (in the future). However, normally that repetitive phraseology means ‘surely listen’. That format is often used for emphasis (hence the ‘truly’ ‘faithfully’, etc.). But I don’t think that’s true in our case.
The Ohr HaChaim gives two interpretations of this phrase, and I believe that when you put them together, they produce a profound picture. First, he says, ‘They are being asked to accept what God says before they have heard it…then they must accept it again in the future, for these things have no limit, for in every generation there will be new interpretations.’ That dual acceptance is critical, because Torah will evolve and develop as history unfolds.
But the Ohr HaChaim adds a second mystical approach: The first two Commandments will be heard from God (HaGEVURAH), the rest will be heard from a messenger (MALACH, namely Moshe). There will be two very different levels of listening experience. The Jews must commit to both.
I believe strongly that these two interpretations work hand in hand. Throughout Jewish history we are continually re-accepting the Torah. Every generation must accept the Torah from both God and the contemporary representatives of Moshe Rabbeinu, namely the rabbis of each time period. This dual acceptance is eternal.
Acceptance of this deal results in something quite extraordinary: We become SEGULA. God’s possession, treasure, special. Since I love JRR Tolkien, I can’t help but translate it: Prescious! But what does it mean?
Before going further afield, allow me to share the Ohr Chaim’s interpretation. He claims that a SEGULA is a phenomenon which occurs against the norms of nature. As in certain plants which cure specific ailments against normative expectations, normally the plant is cold but cures a case of ‘chills’. So, too, the Jews will be rewarded in unexpected ways. For example, God doesn’t punish one for planning a sin which isn’t ever committed. On the other hand, God (as SEGULA) will reward an intent to do a MITZVA, even though not ever fulfilled.
There are a lot of interpretations for this term, SEGULA. Rashi suggests ‘dear treasure’ Ramban opines ‘connection (DVEIKUT)’, and HaKtav V’HaKabbala offers ‘connected by love and affection (LIEBUND in Yiddish, German).
The Sforno explains that all of humanity is dear (YAKAR) to God, because all mankind is created in God’s image (TZELEM). However, the Jews are ‘more precious than all the others amongst those who dwell below’. The Netziv adds that it means separated from all others to become a treasure which is brought into a unique place. Rabbeinu Bechaye adds that to be a SEGULA means unique supervision. All the other nations have kings and rulers but the Jews are only governed by God.
However, my favorite (at least this year) is the Ma’or V’Shemesh. He explains that Yisrael is the flower. All the other nations of the world are leaves, stems, and roots. Every part of the plant is absolutely necessary for success and beauty, but the crowning glory is the beautiful blossom. This also fits the other uses of the term, like the vowel SEGOL is a triangle, which describes a surrounded protected area. So, too, the flower, as the crowning glory of the plant is surrounded and supported by all the other parts of the plant. We’re supposed to be the budding glory of Humanity, but never stop being part of the human race.
As the Jews prepare to accept the Torah at Mt. Sinai, God presents a double challenge. First, commit to guard the treasure now and forever. Then, become the blossom of humanity, which ultimately gives the species glory. It’s a grand goal, worthy of all our effort.