This letter is dedicated to Reuven and Judith Goldfarb.
In the previous letter, we began to discuss how we can pray the words, “Who chose us from all the peoples,” with a universal consciousness, and we cited the following Divine proclamation to our people at Mount Sinai:
And now, if you will earnestly hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you will be a segulah to Me from among all the peoples, because all the earth is Mine.” (Exodus 19:5).
In our discussion of the above verse, we cited the following insights of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch which are based on biblical and rabbinic sources: A segulah is a treasured possession which belongs exclusively to its owner and which is only used for the purpose of its owner. In this spirit, we are to become a segulah people that will belong exclusively to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-giving One, and thereby dedicate all aspects of our existence to serving the life-giving Divine purpose for which the human being was created. The above verse states that the reason for this special relationship is “because all the earth is Mine.” Everything and everyone on earth belongs to Hashem; thus, our becoming a segulah is to serve as a reminder of this truth. In other words, Hashem chose our people to be a segulah, so that through our example, all human beings will eventually realize that they are a segulah that belongs to Hashem. As we discussed in this series, this humble awareness can lead human beings to rededicate themselves to their original mission: To serve and protect the earth (Genesis 2:15).
In this letter, we will offer a new and radical interpretation of segulah which can deepen our understanding of the universal raison d’etre of our people.
Before I went up to the Promised Land, I lived in New York City, where I also served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center for Jewish Artists. During this period, I began to spend part of my summers in Berkeley, California, with Reuven and Judith Goldfarb, who invited me to join them at the “Joys of Jewishing” retreats and serve as one of the teachers.
One summer, I was also asked to give a talk at the Berkeley Hillel during their Shabbos service, and I therefore began to review the Torah portion for that Shabbos, in order to find a topic which would be of special interest to the audience that I would address. I became intrigued with the following statement which appears towards the end of the Torah portion:
“Hashem, your God, has chosen you to be for Him a segulah people from all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
I thought about the words, “from all the peoples.” The word “from” can refer to a “select” choosing, and the following sentence can serve as an example: “I chose this coat from all the coats that were in the store.” The word “from” can also refer to an “inclusive” choosing, and the following sentence can serve as an example: “I made the salad from all the vegetables that were in the refrigerator.” If we understand the word “from” as an inclusive choosing, then the phrase, “a segulah people from all the peoples,” is revealing that we are to become a segulah people that will include representatives from all the peoples of the earth. The classic example, I thought to myself, are the converts from all the peoples that join us through accepting the Covenant of the Torah. We, the people of the Covenant, are therefore not limited to a single race or nationality. This insight became the theme of my talk at the Berkeley Hillel, and a number of people in the audience later told me that they greatly appreciated this radical insight regarding the universal role of our people.
After I moved to Jerusalem, I discovered this insight in the biblical commentary of the Netziv, a leading sage of the late 19th century who was the head of the famous Volozin Yeshiva. His talks on the weekly Torah portion were later published in a work titled, He’emak Davar. In his commentary on the words, “you will be a segulah to Me from all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5), he explains that the God of history is telling us that we are to be a segulah that will absorb converts from all the peoples of the earth.
As we discussed in previous letters, we have a universal mission as the people of the Torah to become a social example of the Torah’s teachings. The above explanation of the Netziv reminds us that our people will be universal not only in its purpose, but in its very composition.
Our sages find a source for this inclusive idea in the following Divine promise to our father, Avraham, regarding the role of those of his descendants that will become the people of the Covenant:
“All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2).
The Hebrew word for “will be blessed” in the above verse is v'nivrichu. This word can also mean “to be grafted on” or “to join”; thus, the Talmud interprets this Divine promise in the following manner: “All the families of the earth will join you” (Yevamos 63a). The biblical term “families of the earth” usually refers to the peoples of the earth. In what way will all the peoples of the earth join Israel – the people of the Covenant – that will emerge from Avraham? The Talmud explains that this is referring to converts from all the peoples that will join Israel, and the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Elazar, cites as examples two famous female converts in the biblical period. He states:
“What is the meaning of ‘all the families of the earth will join you’? The Holy One, Blessed be He, is saying to Avraham: ‘I have two good grafts to graft on to you – Ruth the Moabite (the great grandmother of King David) and Na'amah the Ammonite (a wife of King Solomon and mother of King Rehoboam).’ ”
Why should our people include representatives from all the peoples of the earth? I would like to suggest that these converts enhance our ability to become a segulah people which can serve as a model for all the peoples of the earth. Through the converts from all the peoples, we can become a model which represents all the peoples; thus, when other peoples see us, they will be seeing themselves. This will help them to realize that they are to emulate our spiritual example by becoming a segulah that is dedicated to the Divine purpose for all creation. In this spirit, Hashem conveyed to us the following promise regarding the future age when we will have fulfilled our universal mission in Zion:
“Sing and be glad O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst…many nations will join themselves to Hashem on that day, and they will become a people unto Me; and I will dwell in your midst (Zechariah 2:14,15).
Shalom, and a Good Month,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following are recommended autobiographies by converts to Judaism. They are former Christians who joined our people through accepting the Covenant of Torah and its path of mitzvos. Through accepting the Torah, they also accepted the Torah’s understanding of the One God, the Messiah, and redemption.
1. “Gathered Stones” by David Starr-Glass – This is a fascinating story of a Scotsman’s journey to Judaism. He now lives in Jerusalem. This book is published by Feldheim Publishers: www.feldheim.com
2. “My Sister the Jew” by Ahuvah Gray – This is a fascinating story of an African American woman and her journey to Judaism. She now lives in Jerusalem. For further information or to invite her to speak, visit: www.mysisterthejew.com .
3. “Gifts of A Stranger” by Ahuvah Gray – In this book, Ahuvah Gray tells about her moving experiences as a lecturer and teacher “after” her conversion. In addition to her work as a tour guide in Israel, she travels around the world in order to share her story and spiritual insights.
The books by Ahuvah Gray are published by Targum Press: www.targum.com .