This letter is dedicated to Joy Krauthammer, an active participant in our educational program, “Hazon Our Universal Vision.”
We shall begin to discuss a prayer known as Birchas HaTorah – Blessing of the Torah. This is the daily two-part blessing that Jewish men and women say each morning before the study of Torah. This blessing is for all the Torah that one will study during the day, and it also expresses our appreciation to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, for giving us the Torah – the Divine Teaching. Rabbi Yaakov Emden was a noted sage of the 18th century, and in his commentary on the Siddur – the classical Jewish Prayer Book – he cites the following teaching of the great sage and kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, regarding the Blessing of the Torah:
One needs to say it with great joy and with great consciousness.
In this letter, we shall begin to discuss how this great consciousness is a universal consciousness.
The blessing for the study of Torah opens with the following words: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and has commanded us to be occupied with the study of the words of Torah.” The blessing begins with the reminder that we have a mitzvah – Divine mandate – to study the Divine Teaching, and a source for this mitzvah is found in the following passage from the Torah:
“And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6,7)
In the spirit of the above passage, we say the following words each evening before we chant the Shema – the proclamation of the Divine Unity:
“Therefore Hashem, our God, upon our retiring and arising, we will discuss Your statutes and rejoice with the words of Your Torah and with Your mitzvos for all eternity. For they are our life and the length of our days, and upon them we will meditate day and night.”
We are to study Torah during the day and during the night, but before we begin our daily study, we say the following two-part blessing:
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos, and has commanded us to be occupied with the study of the words of Torah. Please, Hashem, our God, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the family of Israel. May we and our offspring and the offspring of Your people, the family of Israel – all of us – know Your Name and study Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who teaches Torah to His people Israel.”
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has chosen us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You Hashem, Giver of the Torah.”
The blessing is then followed by some passages from the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, which we shall discuss, with the help of Hashem, in a future letter. In this letter, we shall discuss the universal significance of the following words from the above blessing: “Who has chosen us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah.” These words are referring to the giving of the Torah to our people at Mount Sinai, and we will therefore begin our discussion with the following Divine proclamation to our people when we arrived at the mountain:
“You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me. 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 19:5,6).
The Loving One Who liberated us from the bondage of Egypt also chose us to be a segulah from all the peoples. What does it mean to be a segulah?
In his commentary on the above passage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch cites biblical and rabbinic sources which indicate that a segulah is an exclusive and treasured possession to which no one else except its owner is entitled. A segulah can only be used by the owner and for the purposes of the owner. This term is teaching us, explains Rabbi Hirsch, that we are to belong exclusively to Hashem; thus, every aspect of our existence is be devoted exclusively to the life-affirming Divine purpose. In this spirit, Rabbi Hirsch translates, “you shall be a segulah to Me,” as, “you must belong to Me exclusively.”
The above passage states that the reason for this special relationship is “because all the earth is Mine.” With these words, teaches Rabbi Hirsch, Hashem is conveying the following message to our people:
“The relationship into which you are now to enter with Me is not an exceptional relationship. Rather, it is the beginning of the renewal of the normal relationship that should exist between Me and all the earth. According to their destiny, all humankind and all nations are Mine, and I am educating them to become Mine.”
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.
We will soon be welcoming the arrival of the Shabbos Queen, the Bride of Israel. The above teachings can help us to chant the following greeting to the Shabbos Queen with a joyous and universal consciousness:
“Come with joy and good cheer into the midst of the faithful ones of the segulah people. Enter, O Bride! Enter O Bride! (Lecho Dodi)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The idea that the special Divine relationship with Israel is to lead to a Divine relationship with all peoples is expressed in the following metaphor where Hashem states, “Israel is My firstborn child” (Exodus 4:24).
Rabbi Hirsch explains this statement in the following manner: “With Israel the womb of humanity will be opened.” Through Israel, all the peoples will eventually experience a spiritual birth which will make them aware that each of them is a “child” of Hashem.
Another biblical metaphor which expresses the idea that the Divine relationship with Israel has a universal goal is found in the following Divine promise to our people regarding the messianic age:
“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).
2. As Jewish history has demonstrated, there were those among the nations who resented the role of the Jewish people. For example, William Norman Ewer, a British journalist, wrote: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” To this snide comment, Ogden Nash, an American poet, replied: “It wasn't odd; the Jews chose God.”
Ogden Nash, who was not Jewish, expressed a valid insight concerning the spiritual and pioneering role of the Jewish people. For example, this people had the courage and the faith to enter the barren wilderness in order to journey to the mountain where they would receive the Divine Teaching. Hashem therefore proclaimed to them: “I recall for you the lovingkindness of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.” (Jeremiah 2:2)
3. After Hashem proclaimed at Mount Sinai, “You will be a segulah to Me from among all the peoples, because all the earth is Mine,” Hashem revealed the way to become a segulah:
“You shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
Kohanim are ministers who are dedicated to the life-affirming Divine service, and a holy nation “consecrates” all aspects of its existence to this Divine service.
4. The Torah and its interpretations were given to our people; moreover, we were devoted to the study of Torah, even during the long and bitter exile, when we were often persecuted because of our loyalty to the Torah. The goal of our historical journey is to become a social model of the Torah’s teachings that will inspire all the peoples of the earth. In this spirit, there is a Divine promise that we will have a special educational role in the messianic age when the peoples will journey to Zion in order to study the universal teachings and precepts of the Torah which apply to them. (The pilgrimage of the peoples to Zion is described in Isaiah 2:1-3.) Our special educational role during this age of universal enlightenment is described in the following Divine message to our people: “And you will be called Kohanim of Hashem; ‘ministers of our God’ will be said about you” (Isaiah 61:6).