Home > Divrei Torah > Yitro


March 23, 2006

A Treasured People
By Daniel Price

In this week’s Torah portion, neatly nestled between Yitro’s sage
advice to Moses to delegate, and the Ten Commandments, is a
controversial verse that has been central for Jews over the centuries.
It has been both a source of hope and strength for a marginalized
people through the ages, and it has been used against us. As a liberal
Jew I have found it to be a source of concern. I certainly understand
it within a historical context, but I refute it from a theological
context. I have to. I am not an apologist, but I am a product of the
teachings of liberal Judaism of the past half century.

I am speaking of Exodus 19:5, where G-d speaks to Moses, saying:
‘Now then if you (the Children of Israel) will indeed obey Me and keep
My covenant you shall be my ‘treasured’ possession among all the
peoples.’ The word written in the Torah is ‘segulah.’ This word, segulah,

is perhaps derived from Akkadian, a language of the ancient
Mesopotamians, predating Abraham, originally meaning ‘property or
cattle,’ treasured possessions back then.

This verse in and of itself is innocuous in the context of history.
Its audience is the Children of Israel, and it is meant to persuade
them to obey the covenant of G-d and the words that follow in this parashah,
the Ten Commandments. But to the 21st century reader this verse can be
disturbing. Would parents tell a child that if s/he obeyed them, s/he
would be more treasured than the same parents’ other children? This
verse is bookended twice in Deuteronomy where Moses reminds the
Children of Israel that ‘Of all the people of the Earth the Lord (your
G-d) chose (Hebrew ‘bahar’) you to be his treasured
people.’ (This line is repeated verbatim again in Deuteronomy 14:2.)
Apparently, despite all our murmurings, we did obey him and we did
keep his covenant over those 40 years in the desert, and so he chose us
to be his treasured people. Somehow over time the words got shortened
to ‘the chosen people,’ even though it never actually says that in the

Now, as a Reform Jew, my sensibilities tell me that I cannot believe
that G-d would choose any one people over another. Gunther Plaut, the
editor of the Reform Humash says that perhaps the idea of chosen is
antiquated, that it doesn’t work in society today. In Plaut’s words
‘the very term the chosen people makes moderns recoil. It smacks of
ugly feelings of superiority. It has a tinge of exclusiveness, . . .
and is altogether unworthy.’ Yet, my modern sensibility and reaction to
this verse is not an apology for the text, but a product of my Judaic

In the Reform Judaism that I grew up with there was always a tension
between the universal needs of humanity and the particular needs of the
Jewish People. Although I definitely view the world through a Jewish
lens, I can never forget about the needs of all of humanity. The
tension has always been: do we put the needs of the Jewish people
before the needs of humanity? This is a very difficult question, and I,
after almost fifty years, have no answer. I remember the tension caused
in my synagogue when I was growing up, because our Rabbi was more of a
‘humanist’ concerned with hunger in the third world and less of a
‘Zionist’ concerned with Israel and statehood. Although I come from a
family of ardent Zionists and am one myself, only now can I understand
and admire his politics. The world always needs voices that balance
each other.

So where can I find the balance between the ‘particular’ and the
‘universal’? Noted liberal theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, in his
book Renewing the Covenant, tries to resolve the tension
between particularism and universalism by arguing that ‘without a
particularistic religious ground, our universalism cannot have the
moral power to which our spiritual and human experience entitles it.’
In other words we must bring to the world the moral and ethical
grounding of Judaism to help create a universal whole. But we do not do
this alone. All religions must bring the same from their own
particularistic religious grounding. It is only then, from the strength
of our diversity that we can create a universal whole. The difficult
thing here is that for this to work, no religion can hold a moral high
ground. We are all children of G-d.

I recently spent Pesah with a family that, though
Jewish, does not practice. I found myself defending religion in
general. I was shocked when a well-educated father and lawyer said that
we should have universal beliefs. That is where I felt the line of
universalism. I explained that although there should be a standard of
universal ethics and human conduct, which I believe can be found in
most civil laws, the idea of a universality of belief is abominable.
The treasure that we should all celebrate is our diversity; it
shouldn’t be a threat to us but a treat for us. And perhaps that is how
we are a treasured people, one of so many people that add to the
richness of this world.