What is your purpose in life? We all have our own answers to this question, both broad answers – such as being an aved Hashem (a servant of God) – and more focused answers – such as, perhaps, writing the great American novel. But the reality is that we all find ourselves wondering about our purpose as we, and it, change throughout our lifetimes.
Wanting to understand why we are here and what we should be aiming for is an integral part of human nature. When we don’t know our purpose, we risk wandering aimlessly. This is true of individuals and of collective groups of nations such as Klal Yisrael.
Stuck in slavery, the Hebrews were not able to think about their ultimate purpose. They knew, however, that their identity as Bnei Yisrael meant that they had a destiny, that they were meant to be more than slaves. They called out to God, and He sent Moshe to lead them out of slavery and to save them from the Egyptians and the initial perils of the wilderness (the need for food, water, etc). When they arrived at the wilderness at Sinai, Hashem knew that now that their worries of freedom and survival were behind them that they would start to think about their purpose and their goals. Now, therefor, was the time to set before them the Torah, the laws by which He expected them to lead their lives. Before He began transmitting the Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments), before He even asked Bnei Yisrael if they would accept His laws, Hashem told Moshe and Aharon to tell Bnei Yisrael what He desires their purpose to be: “And you shall be to Me a ממלכת כהנים kingdom of priests and גוי קדושׁ a holy nation” (19:6).
Accepting the Torah means accepting this eternal purpose for our existence as a people. The two work together. Our purpose is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and the framework of what we need to do to accomplish this is laid out in the Torah. So too, the laws of the Torah empower us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
One might ask, and many commentators do ask, why two different terms are used. One common opinion (e.g. Ramban) is that being a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests, is our purpose for Olam Hazeh, because in this world we can be to the world like our kohanim are to Am Yisrael – we can teach and guide and provide avodah to Hashem; while being a גוי קדושׁ, a holy nation, is for Olam Habah, for the next world, since being kadosh is more passive than active.
One could also look at the dual terminology as guidelines for our outer world and our inner world. When dealing with the world at large, we must strive to be a ממלכת כהנים, a kingdom of priests. The term ממלכת (kingdom) is very interesting. It is generally understood that the term melech (king) implies a leader whom the people wish to have rule (as opposed to a moshel, which is a leader who comes to rule because of his power). Perhaps the goal of being a ממלכת כהנים is that the people of the the world will want to look to the Jewish people to represent them in serving Hakodesh Baruch Hu. The only way this happens, however, is by making certain that our inner world is a גוי קדושׁ, a holy nation.
Goy Kadosh is also an interesting term. We generally translate kadosh as holy because it seems the easiest word to use, but often a more accurate translation would be sanctified, a word that implies being set aside for God. That could lead one to think that the ideal is for Bnei Yisrael to be set aside, to isolate themselves in pursuit of kedusha, but Hashem ties kadosh to the word goy – a nation or people, which is a term that can apply to every nation. It is, perhaps, a subtle reminder that being kadosh in Judaism means being connected to the world. We cannot be a goy kadosh without recognizing ourselves among the goyim of the world.
Rabbeinu Bachya also points out that the word גוי can be understood as being possessive and that the term could be translated as “a nation that belongs to the Holy One.” Adding yet another layer to the already rich meaning of this pasuk. Being titled a ממלכת כהנים could give Bnei Yisrael an arrogance to think that they are superior to the world, but Hashem immediately reminds them that what now sets them apart is their relationship to Him, not their relationship to other nations.
Parshas Yisro is the parsha during which we recall the moments when we became the “Chosen People,” but perhaps these multi-faceted reflections on what it means to be a ממלכת כהנים and aגוי קדושׁ (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation) will provide us with some further ideas to think about as we strive toward fulfilling our individual purposes and our national goals.
To read last year’s post on Parshas Yisro, please click here: https://cthedawn.blogspot.com/2019/01/better-watch-boundaries.html