by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
B'nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, in our parsha, Ki Tavo, and also in other parshayoth, is called an AM SEGULA. This is often translated as "treasured nation." Sometimes even as "chosen nation." To be a treasured nation is admittedly very nice, as is also the status of being a chosen nation, although that carries some heavy baggage when it is interpreted by some as evidence of haughtiness and superiority.
Using these terms on some level does violence to the sense of Israel being a nation that interfaces between the particular and the general, between the national and the universal. We are also said to be a MAMLECHET KOHANIM, or a nation of priests. Indeed, just as the kohein in the Temple traditionally served as the intermediary between Israel and G*d, so too, as a mamlechet kohanim, or a "nation of priests," does the nation of Israel then serve as the intermediary between G*d and the other nations of the world.
This status does not inhere automatically to Israel. Rather it applies only insofar as Israel is cognizant of its role via its consciousness of fealty to the idea of mitzvah, that G*d's blessings pour down over an Israel that is consciously connected to its relationship with the Divine, and that we have the kavannah, or intention, that the performance of a mitzvah reverberates with positive energy not only for ourselves but for the benefit of humanity at large.
Note that in Deut. 26:19, the verse reads,
"ULETITCHA ELYON AL KAWL HAGOYIM...,
to give you height over all the other nations.."
This is not the height of arrogance. Rather, this is the height of service. As Israel is a mamlechet kohanim, a nation of priests, Israel is a kohein, or holy servant, to the other nations on Earth.
This does not mean supremacy! Rather, the Torah is teaching us that in order for Hashem's blessings for Israel to also reach and bring blessing to all the other nations of the world, Israel must position herself high through her allegiance to Torah. Through her becoming spiritually elevated and raised up through living by the ways of the Torah, subsequently the"spillage" from this pouring down of the heavenly blessings will affect everyone.
However, a self-debased Israel would be a proverbial pit, soaking up the blessing all to herself and hoarding it and thereby choking on it. Being in her self-created pit caused by her own sins, the blessings could not then spread out. Israel would then suffocate on her surfeit of blessing, turning the blessing into a curse via her own behavior. Israel's mission is to bring blessing upon all the earth through her lofty role of service to the One G*d.
Israel's self-debasement comes from two sources. The first source stems from a lack of Torah, that in the absence of the knowledge of how to serve G*d through the study of the Torah and living by the mitzvoth found therein we remove ourselves from the source of blessing. The second source stems from not a lack, but oppositely from a surfeit of Torah, where the kavannah, or intention, is not the elevation of humanity via our attachment to Torah, but regrettably, where the kavannah is the supremacy of Israel, "to hell with the whole world, they all want to kill us anyway." The point of Torah is in our sharing of our blessings with the world, that it should be a source of blessing for the world, precisely because of our fealty to Torah.
Why is the Dead Sea dead? Because it only receives. It never gives out life sustaining waters. Thus the salts accumulate to toxic levels. Sea salt gives life, but only in very small quantities.
The Golan, by contrast, is bursting with life and vibrancy year round. Its fresh, living waters sustain and replenish Yam Kineret, the Sea of Galilee, whose waters sustain all Israel. And the Torah emanating from Yerushalayim and Tzfat, and indeed from all the heights of Torah, water and give spiritual nourishment to all Israel and to the world at large.
Rabbeinu (the Rashban, aka Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, aka Reb Shlomo) always taught that "the world so much NEEDS the Jews to be good yidden." In other words, there is NO dichotomy between being a good Jew and being a good human being. Just the opposite! We are better human beings, doing our part for all humanity, by becoming the best Jews possible! So now the folk and the cosmologic senses of the word "segula" align themselves in a neat symmetry.
Israel now has the opportunity, our parsha is telling us, of being a catalyst for blessing for all the nations of the world. Indeed, this is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic blessing that "all the nations will be blessed through you." Israel, in a sense, now becomes the yeast for the whole world. As yeast is the catalyst in baking, so too is Israel that transforming agent of change which has the awesome capability of uplifting all of humanity. Just as yeast is among the least of the ingredients, so too is Israel the least populous of the nations. Just as yeast is less than tasty when eaten as a meal in itself, so too does Israel shine less when consumed solely in a self-absorbed disinterest with the fate of humanity.
Now we understand on the deepest level why we totally eradicate any presence of chametz on Passover, the holiday marking our new status finally as a nation among the other nations of the world. The special zero-tolerance status for yeast on Passover now makes sense. The very energy expended in our total obsession with its eradication is only meant to underline and call attention to the "yeast" status of the Jewish people vis a vis its relationship to humanity. By calling attention to yeast/leaven so explicitly, the Torah wants us to understand on our national birthday (Passover) our special "yeast role" in the universe.
In all other areas of kashruth a miniscule amount of a forbidden substance is"tolerated" if it exists in a certain miniscule percentage in relation to the permitted ingredients (usually a 1/60 ratio). Not so with yeast on Passover. It has the status of "assur bemashehoo," i.e., it is forbidden "in any amount" (shulchan aruch: siman taf mem zayin, se'eef dalet). Israel, in its status as exemplar of liberation from Egyptian oppression, bondage and servitude, becomes on a symbolic level at least, the inspiration for all humanity to aspire to freedom from every type of oppression. Our Exodus is the model for all future exodi. Our salvation is the model for all future salvations, as is likewise our redemption in the land of Israel a precursor and model for ultimate world redemption- if only we and our leaders believe it ourselves and if only the world were to lift its veil of hatred and open its eyes.
By the special status and attention which the Torah pays to actual, real, live yeast in the Exodus narrative and to its accompanying rites of memory and reenactment, so too should we therefore be cognizant of the people of Israel's symbolic and yet very real status as yeast/catalysts in the rising pungent ferment that is humanity. The more we consciously incorporate Judaism into our lives, the sooner we help elevate all humanity, including ourselves, to achieve the end stage of glorious redemption and peace, and thereby fulfill our true destiny as an "am segula," as a Catalyst Nation.
Ignorance of the true meaning of the term segula has resulted in tragedy in both directions: misplaced haughtiness and arrogance on the part of some Jews who in righteous tribal anger circle the proverbial wagons to shut out the outside modern world, and has tragically provided ammunition to antisemites who claim that our so-called claim to a chosen status implies a claim of superiority which somehow justifies a negative response.
When we want something good for someone we often say, "do this as a segula." Or sometimes it is said, "say this prayer at the kotel for forty days to find your soul mate as a segula," or "recite this psalm on behalf of sick person as a segula," or "wear this amulet as a segula." So clearly, at least in the folk mind, a segula has the sense of being a catalyst, of bringing about positive change on some level.
As role models for tzedaka, culture, agriculture, education, science, the arts and humanities, with leadership roles in progressive movements for social justice, equality and better working conditions for all, Israel's light shines brightly. We are a segula indeed. We are not perfect, but we are trying.
As we enter the High Holy Day season officially with Selichot this Saturday night, let us remember that we are not perfect creatures either. We make mistakes, but the point is to learn from them, to grow from them, to become better people because of the mistakes we have made. Thank G*d I make mistakes! That's the only way I know how to grow!
© 1999-2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l
I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me.
Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
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