Yitro: A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation?

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Chapter 19 of Exodus, Parashat Yitro, recounts that when the Israelites reached the mountain in Sinai, G-d instructed Moses:


“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: … ‘all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְגֹ֣וי קָדֹ֑ושׁ: a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This was but the first of many times in Torah that G-d used this description for the Israelites.  That we fulfill this charge was obviously of critical importance.   


We therefore need to ask: What does it mean for Jews to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation?”  In this very short D’var Torah, I can only suggest the most cursory of answers.  Here are two from our modern sages that I find meaningful:


First, as Rabbi Nachum Amsel has observed, both religion and nationalism have always been both intrinsic and necessary to Judaism. 


For many years, other faiths and other peoples have used the phrase pronounced by G-d, “Let My people go,” when speaking about national aspirations, and of course, we recall this phrase annually during Passover.  But the words “Let My people go” in the Torah are always followed by the words, “So that they can serve Me.”  Therefore, G-d is clearly saying that nationalism is indeed important in Judaism, as long as it is followed by service to G-d, the core religious component of Judaism.  Religion and nationalism. 


When Ruth, the ultimate convert to Judaism and great-grandmother of King David, described the essence of Judaism, she uttered just four Hebrew words: “Amech Ami v’Elohayich Elohai,” “your nation is my nation, and your G-d is my G-d.”  (Ruth 1:16).  This encapsulates the essence of Judaism, and one aspect without the other is not truly Jewish.  So the first lesson is that to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, we need to embrace both the religious aspect of Judaism -- holiness - and the peoplehood aspect -- the Jewish people everywhere as a nation.  


A second idea about this critical phrase. “You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is both a directive and a summary of the Jewish mission.  We are a people “set apart,” as the Torah also repeats in several places.  Dr. Elaine Adler Goodfriend argues that just as a priest adopts a distinctive lifestyle dedicated to the service of G-d so he can minister to the needs of the laity, so Israel's mission is to serve that role for the nations.  


As renown British rabbi and educator Dr. S.M. Lehrman put it, As "a holy nation", Israel's public and private life was one continuous consecration. Justice, truthfulness, solicitude for the weak, obedience and reverence for those in authority, regard for the rights of others, a forgiving and a candid spirit, aflame with love for men and consideration for beast, charity and humility--these are to be some of the characteristics flowering forth from the Jewish life dedicated to G-d.  To fulfill the Jewish mission of being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” we must maintain our distinctive language -- Hebrew, dress -- even if just a kippah or necklace, customs, and other indicia of distinctiveness.  We must view ourselves, and be identifiable to others, as a separate people or nation as we pursue public and private lives of continuous consecration.  


To summarize these two ideas, being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” requires that we embrace our religion, our people or nationhood, our distinctiveness, and a life of menschlichkeit -- being good to others in everything we do.  Of making our conspicuously Jewish lives a blessing in the lives of others. 


American law and the American ethic emphasize individual autonomy and choice.  But Jewish law and Jewish ethics are different.  They place the focus upon our community and upon our people as a whole, in service to G-d, and as a light to the nations.  Being a Jew in America shouldn’t just mean being an American who happens to be Jewish.  It shouldn’t just mean “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  It should mean each of us being a priest and a contributing member of a holy nation, that is to say, a people invested with a special mission and responsibility to sustain both ritual and ethical conduct.  


May we all reflect upon our unique and sacred duty as Jews and strive to carry that duty forward every day, exemplifying it for the betterment of all humanity.


As always, for more information on this and other Jewish ethical topics, I invite you to visit theethicaltorah.com.


May you have a blessed and peaceful Shabbat and … thank you for reading this! 



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb