This weekly Torah episode is named after ‘Jethro’ – honoring Moses’ Father in Law, who was also High Priest of Midian, the indigenous people of the Sinai Peninsula. Jethro journeys towards the Hebrew encampment at the foot of the Mountain of God, bringing along the First Family – Zippora and the two sons of Moses. Not much is told in the text about the family reunion, but we are told that Jethro, impressed by the deeds of the Hebrew Deity, proclaims his faith in this new God. Thus, several commentaries and traditions identity Jethro as the first official convert – a Hebrew by Choice.
Choice – choosing and being chosen – is the key motif in this story. Jethro’s personal revelation is a prelude to the big act of The Revelation – Live from Mount Sinai, complete with thunder, lightning, and thick clouds. The Hebrew people, only chapters ago an enslaved mass, are now invited (and possibly commanded) to make the choice of becoming a sacred nation – a God-Chosen tribe. But unlike Jethro – who returns to the tents of Midian – the Hebrews are here to stay, and under the billowing mountain they become the Chosen People – a dense, challenging and oddly translated expression appearing here for the first time, verbatim from God:
Exodus 19:5 Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the Earth is mine. (KJV)
The Hebrew word SEGULA – translated here as ‘treasured possession’ is elsewhere translated as ‘special property’, ‘’peculiar treasure’, ‘unique merit’ and ‘special treasure’. The Pseudo-Jonathan, translated:’ you shall be more beloved before Me than all the peoples on the face of the earth.’
The word Segula has legal overtones denoting valued property to which “one has exclusive possession,” and all our translators are struggling with this word/concept that summarizes this binding and conditional covenant.
There’s much to say about the CHOSEN PEOPLE concept and not all of it is happy. The historical ‘othernesses of the Hebrew tribe that premiers here this week has resulted in both pride – and painful prejudice. In the 2007 Global village, with Anti Semitism (disguised and/or fueled by anti-Zionism) on the rise again, the Chosen issue spans politics, theology, and socio-economic tensions that impact the lives of millions. Can Jewish Identify continue to thrive while deeply examining and deconstructing this notion of ‘elite human squad’?
Interestingly, the original Hebrew term does not in itself imply either exclusivity or pre-eminence. A plausible reading is that God considers Israel a cherished people, a jewel in the crown of nations, but not the crown itself.
In support of this sense of Israel being one special nation with its own unique gifts among other special nations, we note that the word segula may also mean ‘purple’ – as in the color. Although it is famously a regal color – purple is only one hue in a spectrum, and it draws its composition from reds and blues. In the divine palate a color may be distinct yet not superior to other colors. Maybe we are not the Chosen people – what a relief! We are merely the People Purple. Maybe this is just a fashion statement (It is Fashion week in NYC!) and not a social boundary…
Either way, this is one of those Biblical cases where translation becomes much more than a semantic case in point, and an opportunity for us to boldly explore how our past and present meet.
Whether as a parent with children or a leader with colleagues, we all know the challenge of seeing and articulating value without creating invidious comparisons. Where in your family and workplace do you struggle with the issues of ‘special’ and value and how do you remind each person of their unique place?