Our current reality seems bleak as we read daily reports of the number of people who have recently contracted COVID-19 or of those who have recently passed away after contracting the virus. We are all saddened by the fact that we must stay away from our family and loved ones. Vaccination campaigns in Israel offer us a glimmer of hope and we can begin to dream of a post-COVID time.
Conversations with my friends from abroad cause me to reflect on Israel’s national health system and how this system should not be taken for granted. When I discuss the current global health crisis, I can see that my American friends, in particular, can only dream of receiving a vaccine even if they are considered part of at-risk health populations. Moreover, tens of millions of people are living without any medical insurance at all. Even if they needed treatment, they would not be able to receive it because they could not pay for it.
How does this connect to this week’s parasha, Yitro? At the heart of the story of Yitro is the following verse:
“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession (am segula) among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine.” Shemot 19:5
The phrase “am segula” is often translated to “chosen people”. In the story of Yitro (Jethro), it is mentioned several times and used to describe the uniqueness of the people of Israel. In the Midrash and other works of sacred Jewish literature, “segula” is often used to describe something that is precious, treasured, and unique.
What does this say about us as Jews? What does it mean to be “chosen”? Are we really “chosen”, and if so, are we entitled to special rights and protections? Are the “chosen people” a closed group that others are not able to enter into? If we have been born into this group, is our distinction as “chosen” protected or must we earn it?
I believe that the answers to some of these questions can be found in the parasha. Just by looking at the title, we can see that this group known as the “chosen people” is not a closed group, but rather an open one willing to include outside partners and learn from their wisdom. Yitro is an example of this. He is a Midian priest and is not an Israelite (and therefore not born into the group of the “chosen people”). However, his name is immortalized in the title of the parasha, reminding us of how important he was to our shared narrative. After all, some of the best leadership advice that Moses received was given to him by a Midian priest.
“You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.” Shemot 18:21
The advice given by Yitrro in the passage above explains how to improve leadership, but also shows the importance of having a high moral code. In order to lead, you need people to follow you. Loyalty, however, is simply not enough. The people in charge need to be God-fearing people, understanding that there is a higher power above them and that they are not all-powerful. They should be honest and not greedy. Those who follow these leaders should not be inherently loyal to them, but rather inherently loyal to the code of ethics that the leader adheres to and the morality that comes from living according to these ethics.
This idea is supported by the words of Rabbi Meir in the Talmud. Rabbi Meir says: “even a gentile who engages in Torah study is considered like a High Priest.” Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 59a.
I can be understood from this quote that in order to be considered “chosen”, one must earn this distinction through action. This is true for the individual in the community all the way up to the high priest.
Of course, it is not possible to read the story of Yitro and not pay attention to the Ten Commandments which appear in the parasha. At the center of the Ten Commandments is the commandment of Shabbat:
“…but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.” Shemot 20:10
The explanation of Sabbath, the day of rest, is where we can see that giving the same social rights that the “chosen people” enjoy to everyone in the population is very important. The Torah was not given to the Israelites by a man who sits on a golden throne so that non-Jews could serve them. In reality, the opposite is true. The Israelites are responsible for instituting the rights they themselves enjoy for all people, regardless of their membership as part of the chosen people or not. This shows how important equal rights are.
This commandment can also be seen again in Devarim:
“…but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.” Devarim 5:14
This quote from Devarim leaves no room for doubt: “this Sabbath was created for your servant to rest like you”. This is talking to “you”, who was born into the group of the “chosen people”. While you know that you will enjoy a Sabbath and rest, your workers may not know that they also deserve the same rest. This is why you are commanded to stop your business and give time off for all who work for you, so that others outside of the group of “chosen people” may also rest.
From this we learn that the social rights guaranteed to the Israelites are not guaranteed and are not more important than the social rights of other peoples. The Israelites must ensure that the rights they enjoy can also be enjoyed by every individual created in the image of God.
The values of the “chosen people” found in parashat Yitro should be applied to the Israeli government’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign. Every person – Jewish, Arab, rich, poor, secular, ultra-Orthodox – should take a number and wait in line for their turn to receive a vaccine. The vaccines we are receiving were developed by people outside of our country – by American or German scientists. It is the natural right of all people to have access to this vaccine.
This Saturday’s reading of parashat Yitro is a good opportunity to remember that being considered to be the “chosen people” was not a gift. We are responsible for earning this title daily through our actions, including in maintaining a health system that is open to the public at large and egalitarian. The values and rights that we apply and give to ourselves, we must ensure remain available to others as well.
This lesson can be summed up by the words of another great Jewish figure from our history, Mr. Stan Lee. In his Spiderman comic series, Lee immortalized this lesson with the words: “With great power there must also come great responsibility. “ (Amazing Fantasy, Vol 15, 1962).
Nir Braudo is Deputy Director, BINA