This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, begins with a story about Moshe Rabbeinu — our teacher Moses — and his father-in-law Yitro, a Midianite priest. Moshe greets his father-in-law with a low bow and with kisses, both signs of great respect.
The next day, Moshe sits as a magistrate among the people all day long. By nightfall, Yitro counsels him: you can’t do this alone — the task of leadership is too heavy for you. Instead, Yitro advises him to establish a system of judges who can share the burden, and Moshe does exactly as his father-in-law suggests.
Immediately after that comes the passage we read in shul today, which tells how on the third new moon after the Israelites went forth from Mitzrayim, they enter the wilderness of Sinai. In that wilderness, they prepare themselves for revelation, and then God speaks the Ten Commandments — tradition says, not only to those who were there that day, but to all of us throughout time.
But before the commandments, before that mystical Sinai moment, God says:
If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי-וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ
וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ
The earth and all its inhabitants are God’s, but Torah says that we are something special. If we live in covenant with God, then we are God’s סְגֻלָּה / segulah — precious possession or treasure; we are מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹ / mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh — a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
What can we make of this, and how does this relate to the story of Yitro with which the parsha began?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of what would become the state of Israel, interprets these verses to mean that our community has two communal missions.
For Rav Kook, the phrase mamlechet kohanim (nation of priests) refers to the aspiration to uplift the entire world. It’s our job, says Rav Kook, to act in a way which will help all the peoples of the world to fulfill their purpose and to live out their highest selves. Of course, in his paradigm, that meant: it’s our job to teach the world God’s ways. To ensure that everyone cares for the widow and the orphan, shows compassion to the stranger, acts justly and righteously as Torah describes.
But Torah also tells us that we’re meant to be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. Rav Kook interprets this as the flipside of the coin: on the one hand we’re meant to teach the whole world how to be righteous, and on the other hand we’re meant to focus inwardly, to live out holiness in our own lives. Being a holy people means tending to our own spiritual growth.
Yitro is a Midianite priest, an outsider to the Israelite community. But when he shares his spiritual wisdom and his management insights with Moshe, Moshe takes them to heart. Given the Torah’s generally negative stance toward the other nations of the Ancient Near East, I’ve always found it remarkable that Yitro is so obviously respected and trusted despite being a foreign priest. But this year, I see a connection between the Yitro story and this verse which asserts that we are God’s treasure, a nation of priests, and holy.
Torah reminds us that all the earth is God’s, but asserts that our community has a special role. In Rav Kook’s interpretation, our community’s task is both outward-facing and inward-facing. It’s our job to help everyone in the world live up to their best and most righteous self, and it’s also our job to care for our own souls.
As a “nation of priests,” we’re obligated to tend to the entire world. As a “holy nation,” we’re obligated to tend to our own selves. The Torah balances these two callings within the same verse. If we only tend to our own selves, we’re falling down on the job of caring for all creation; but if we don’t tend to our own selves, we can’t heal the world.
This is, I think, part of what Yitro taught Moshe when he urged him to find righteous men who could serve as magistrates. If Moshe tried to adjudicate every single disagreement and dispute in the entire community, he would burn out! But once he’d appointed judges, he was able to tend to his own spiritual needs, which in turn allowed him to continue tending to the community.
Yitro is an outsider, not part of our covenant with God, and yet he still clearly has spiritual wisdom. Not only that: it’s spiritual wisdom which Moshe really needs. We, too, may find valuable spiritual wisdom outside of our own gates. Our task is to integrate that wisdom-from-outside with our spiritual tradition and our spiritual path, so that we can truly be a mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh.
What does it mean to you to imagine us as a nation of priests? If a priest’s job, in those days, was to connect the people with God, how can we live out that responsibility now?
What does it mean to you to imagine us as a holy nation? Not “the” holy nation, not the only holy nation, but a community which is collectively holy. If, as Rav Kook says, this means that we are a nation which tends to its own spiritual sustenance, then how might we live that out in our own day?