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Rabbi Zaltzman on Parashat Yitro

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(MICHEL VAN DER BURG PHOTO)

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, recounts the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the covenant with God that accompanied it. The Israelites, theoretically, could have become a nation without the Torah, as Jewishness is acquired through genealogy, not contractually. What, then, is the rationale for the Torah and covenant serving as the foundation upon which our nation is built?

The Torah itself gives us the answer, as God instructs Moses to tell the people that if they keep His covenant, then they will be “a treasure out of all peoples … a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”

Being a treasured nation is an essential state, and cannot be affected by any act or omission. Yet, precisely because it is an intrinsic identity, it is hidden within. The question is: how can it be revealed? How can it be given expression in life? For this, the verse continues and offers two methods: “A kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”

The first step is to recognize that we are holy, and that no shortcoming can take away from that. All that needs to be done is to make sure we engage in activities, such as meditation/prayer, Torah study, mitzvot and kindness, in order to nurture the holiness.

The second step is to recognize that we are princes, ruling over our lives and material surroundings. It begins by attaining mastery over our own internal materialism and animalistic souls, but also includes the challenges of living a material life in a material world.

It is interesting that the verse places these steps in reverse order – first “a kingdom of princes” and then “a holy nation.” The real achievement of the Torah, and the purpose for which it was given to us, is the second step – to bring the light of the soul into the material world – and so the Torah places it first to indicate its place in the vision for what the Torah is ultimately meant to achieve: a transformed and harmonious material world.