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Covenant & Conversation

Yitro (5768) – A Holy Nation


Immediately prior to the great revelation at Mount Sinai, G-d instructs Moses as to the nature of the covenant he is proposing to make with the children of Israel. On their willing acceptance of these terms, all else will depend.

In the course of this preamble, the Torah articulates what, in hindsight, could be called the first mission statement and the first sound-bite. In a mere four Hebrew words, G-d defines the vocation he is calling on the Israelites to make their own:

“A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” 1

What does this mean? I have written elsewhere on the phrase “a kingdom of priests” (At least part of its meaning, I have argued, has to do with the invention of the alphabet, which occurred in or close to centres of Hebrew life in the age of the patriarchs, or possibly during the period in which the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The Israelites were the first to internalise the possibilities of this new information technology, namely that it heralded, for the first time in history, a society in which everyone could read and write and thus have access to knowledge, the single greatest source of human dignity. In ancient times – indeed in Europe until the invention of printing – the only class that was literate was the priesthood. “A kingdom of priests” thus meant, among other things, “a society of universal literacy”).

What, though, of the phrase goi kadosh, “a holy nation”?

Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, famously defined the holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a sense of being in the presence of something vast and awe inspiring. There is doubtless much truth in this idea, but the late Eliezer Berkovits argued the opposite: that whenever we encounter the word holy in relation to G-d it refers to his involvement with humanity, not his transcendence or mystery.

However, these analyses do not go far enough in explaining what the word holy means in the Torah. Its most obvious appearances in the Mosaic books are twofold, the first in relation to Shabbat – the day G-d himself proclaimed holy – and the inner chamber of the sanctuary known as the holy of holies. It is in these contexts that we are best able to learn what holiness means when applied to a people.

Lurianic kabbalah gave Judaism one of its most glorious concepts – an idea, to be sure, that had been present from the outset but had never been articulated as simply before. The idea was tzimtzum, divine “contraction” or “self-effacement.”

Behind the idea of tzimtum is the realization that there is a contradiction between the infinite and the finite. If G-d is everywhere, how can anything else exist? Two different entities (G-d and that which is not G-d) cannot occupy the same space. The kabbalistic answer is that the very act of creation involved a self-limitation on the part of G-d. G-d, as it were, contracted His presence so that finitude – space and time and the things that occupy them – could emerge.

The Hebrew word for space and time, olam (which means both “universe”, i.e. the totality of space, and “eternity”, i.e. the totality of time) also means “hidden” as in the word ne’elam. Thus embedded in the Hebrew language is the idea that space and time are dimensions of the hiddenness of G-d, who is beyond space and time.

Yet were G-d entirely hidden from the universe it would be, experientially and functionally, as if He did not exist. At best Deism would be true (that G-d set creation in motion and thereafter did not intrude into the universe). G-d would be a Deus absconditus, a creator who deserted humanity.

Thus the very terms of creation involve a paradox. Without God the universe would not exist; but the presence of G-d threatens the existence of anything apart from him. “No man,” says G-d, “can see me and live.”

To this the Torah has an answer at once simple and profound. The universe was created in six days; yet creation itself involved seven days. The seventh day is declared by G-d himself to be holy – meaning, henceforth it will become the window in time through which we see the presence of G-d.

How do we do so? By renouncing our own status as creators (on Shabbat all melakhah meaning “creative work” is forbidden). On Shabbat we are passive rather than active. We become creations, not creators. We renounce making in order to experience ourselves as made. Shabbat is the room we make for G-d within time.

Likewise the tabernacle. Essentially this was a large portable tent, a framework and its hangings. Wherever it was erected, it defined a certain space as holy, meaning, set aside for G-d. Within that space nothing was to intervene between the worshipper and God. In particular, priests had to avoid contact with death or anything resembling it, since death is peculiarly human – as in the term “mortal” – while G-d represents life. The Tabernacle is the room we make for G-d within space.

The immensely detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and its service (like the equally detailed laws of Shabbat) are there to signal that nothing in holiness is the result of human initiative. To occupy holy space or time is to renounce human creativity so as to be existentially open to divine creativity. That is why Nadav and Avihu died because they brought an offering “that was not commanded.” The holy is space / time as defined by divine not human will. We enter G-d’s domain on his terms not ours. That is not a consequence of holiness but its very meaning.

Thus, not every time or space is holy. That is of the essence. A world in which all time was Sabbatical, or in which all space had the sanctity of the Tabernacle, would be one in which human beings could not exist as human beings. There would be neither time nor space for human endeavour or achievement. That is precisely what G-does not want to happen. He welcomes human work. That is what the Torah means when it says that we are created in G-d’s image, meaning that we, like G-d, are creative. We, like G-d, are capable of imagining a world that is not yet and bringing it into being.

However, if no time or space were holy, the opposite danger would exist, namely that a world in which G-d is hidden would be one in which, for many people, G-d does not exist. This would be a world with no limits on human self-assertion – always the prelude to political, military, economic or environmental disaster. Therefore there must be some window – some point of transparency – in the screen between the infinite and the finite. That is what holiness is.

Holiness is the space we make for G-d. In the simplest and most elegant way, holiness is to humanity what tsimtsum is to G-d. Just as G-d effaces himself to make space for mankind, so we efface ourselves to make space for G-d. We do this by a temporary renunciation of creativity. Holiness is that bounded emptiness filled by the divine presence.

This idea was utterly incomprehensible to the Hellenistic mind. When the Greeks and Romans first encountered Jews, they could not understand Shabbat. They knew the concept of a holy day – every religion has such days. What they had never before encountered was a day made holy by rest, a day of being rather than doing. Many of them expressed their candid opinion that Jews observed the Shabbat because they were lazy. That was the only explanation they could give.

Likewise, an ancient tradition states that when the Roman General Pompey invaded Jerusalem and entered the Temple he was amazed to find that the holy of holies was empty. He expected to find in it the Israelites’ holiest idol. The idea that empty space – like empty time – might be holy was beyond him.

Holiness is the space we make for the Otherness of G-d – by listening, not speaking; by being, not doing; by allowing ourselves to be acted on rather than acting. It means disengaging from that flow of activity whereby we impose our human purposes on the world, thereby allowing space for the divine purpose to emerge. All holiness is a form of renunciation, but since G-d desires the existence of human beings as responsible and creative beings, he does not ask for total renunciation. Thus some times are holy, not all; some spaces are holy, not all; some people are holy, not all. All nations contain holy individuals. What makes Israel unique is that it is a holy nation, meaning, a nation all of whose members are summoned to holiness. It was the first faith to see holiness as a property not of a sacred elite but of national life itself.

The concept of a nation is fundamental to Judaism, because the nation is a basic unit of culture. As a socio-political entity, it constructs its own form of order through law, ritual, and custom. It is where many smaller groupings, families and communities, come together to construct the basic terms of their common life. And G-d wants his presence to inform public life – otherwise he would have limited his concerns to the individual and the soul.

Judaism knows the faith of individuals. That is what Bereishith is about. The Book of Psalms is the eternal lexicon of the soul in dialogue with G-d. Judaism also knows the faith of humanity as such. That is the meaning of the first eleven chapters of Bereishith and their culmination in the Noahide covenant, the covenant G-d makes with all mankind. But its great concerns are with the life we construct together and the terms on which we do so: justice, compassion, human dignity, peace, the limited and proper conduct of war, care for the dependent, welfare for the poor, concern for the long term viability of the environment, above all, the rule of law in which strong and weak, powerful and powerless, are subject to the same code of conduct applied equally to all. These institutions and ideals are essentially political; hence they require the constitution of a nation as a political entity.

That is the meaning of the phrase goi kadosh a holy nation. At Sinai the Jewish people, until then a mere aggregate of individuals, linked by family, memory and the experience of exodus, became a body politic with the Torah as its written constitution. The word goi – like its cognate term geviyah – means “a body.” It is a metaphor for a group of individuals whose relationship to one another is as of the limbs to a body. Sinai creates the terms of collective existence. Henceforth the Israelites are implicated in one another’s fate.

The word kadosh in this context therefore designates a third emptiness, not time (Shabbat), nor space (the Tabernacle) but the empty throne (cathedra, seat of authority). The place occupied in other nations by the monarch, ruler or Pharaoh, is, in the case of Israel, to be left empty for G-d. Israel is to become a republic of faith under His direct sovereignty. He is the author of its constitution, the framer of its rules, the one who guides it through its long journeys, sustains it in hours of need, and gives it hope in times of crisis. The essence of the Sinai revelation is that the Israelites become the first – indeed the only – nation formed on the basis of a covenant with G-d.

Hence the significance of the setting: in the wilderness. All other nations become nations because they have lived together for a long time in the territory they see as home. Whether through war, assassination, coup d’état, plebiscite or general acclaim they elect an individual or group to be their leader, and a political structure which determines relationships between rulers and ruled.

Israel becomes a nation prior to all these things. It has not yet reached its land. It does not yet have a king. These things lie far ahead in the future. Sinai constitutes the creation of a nation long in advance of those things that normally lead to the birth of a nation, because it is not a normal nation but a holy one.

What then does it mean to be a holy nation? At least the following:

[1] Jewish history will continually point to something beyond itself, something that cannot be explained by the usual laws of history. That is what Moses means when he says:

    Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created man on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? . . . Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?

This too is the meaning of Isaiah’s remarkable statement: “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD , “that I am G-d.” 4 In its collective fate and destiny Israel will constitute the most compelling evidence of Divine involvement in human history. It will reach heights of achievement, and sometimes depths of degradation, that have no counterpart in the fate of other nations. As Tolstoy once wrote, “The Jew is the emblem of eternity.”

[2] Jewish law – the eternal structure of its collective existence – will bear witness to its more-than-human character. Hence Moses’ statement:

    See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my G-d commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” . . . What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

The graciousness of its welfare legislation, and the lucidity of its (unremittingly anti-mythological) faith will bespeak a social order more than human in its sheer humanity. As Matthew Arnold wrote: “As long as the world lasts, all who want to make progress in righteousness will come to Israel for inspiration, as to the people who have had the sense for righteousness most glowing and strongest.”

[3] It will be a nation that recognises in all its laws the existence of something beyond itself. Thus the very land it inhabits will not be its own but G-d’s (“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity because the land is Mine”). All forms of rulership, whether of judges, elders or monarchs, will be limited by the overarching sovereignty of G-d; hence the moral right of prophets to criticise kings and “speak truth to power.” Israel will know no absolutes – not the state nor the individual nor the status quo – for there is only one absolute, namely G-d himself. This single fact will save it, in the course of history, from tyranny on the one hand, anarchy on the other, but it will always be the enemy of tyrants, because it will always refuse to worship anything less than G-d himself.

[4] Its governance will always rest on consent rather than obedience to power. This fact is implicit at Sinai, where G-d himself had to secure the assent of the people before giving it its laws (The Talmud entertains the possibility that G-d coerced the Israelites into agreement – by “suspending the mountain over their heads” – but then immediately concludes that if this were so, the covenant would be null and void). At more than one time in Jewish history, the need for consent has threatened to make the Jewish people virtually ungovernable. Despite this, Jews never compromised on that principle. Judaism is thus hyper-democratic – sometimes a political weakness, but always an assertion of human dignity.

[5] Historically, the most remarkable outcome of the Sinai covenant was that even when they lost their land and sovereignty, Jews did not cease to be a nation – because they became a nation before they reached the land or acquired sovereignty. In exile they became the world’s first global people, the first virtual nation, defined not by shared territory, fate, culture, political system or even spoken language, but purely by a covenant enacted by their ancestors more than a thousand years earlier.

Kadosh therefore means: that which in itself points beyond itself. It means the time which signals eternity (Shabbat), the space which intimates being-beyond-space (the Tabernacle), and the nation whose history and way of life bespeak something outside the normal parameters of history and ways of life.

In one of my favourite quotations, the American writer Milton Himmelfarb once wrote:

    Each Jew knows how thoroughly ordinary he is; yet taken together, we seem caught up in the things great and inexplicable . . . The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seemed to happen around us and to us.

That is as good a way as any of saying what it means to be a holy nation.