INSIGHT

5769 - #13

A UNIQUE NATION

T.B. Berachot 6a asks the question: what is written in God’s tefillin? Obviously, God does not wear physical tefillin but what the gemara is questioning is: how does God relate to and praise the Jewish nation? The verses that we include in our tefillin are reflections of our relationship to, praise of and understanding of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. In a statement that God also has tefillin, we are being told that, in reflection of this relationship with God, just as our tefillin contain verses that distinguish our recognition of and connection to God, the concept of His tefillin should similarly contain pesukim, verses, that distinguish Hashem’s perception of and connection to us. So what are these verses that indicate the distinctiveness of the Jewish People in the eyes of God? The gemara begins its response by stating that just as our tefillin contain the verse Shema Yisrael1 --  Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One – God’s tefillin contains the verse Mi k’amcha  Yisrael2 – Who is like Your nation, Israel, one nation on the earth.3 Just as our tefillin praise the singular nature of God, His tefillin praise the singular nature of the Jewish nation. But is it true that the Jewish nation is “one nation on the earth,” the only nation in the world? The reference to oneness in this verse must, as such, refer to uniqueness. What, though, is the uniqueness of the Jewish nation?

            Rashi, Divrei Hayamim 17:21 explains that the Jewish People are unique for they were freed from Egypt by God Himself, to be taken by him to be His nation. God has not acted in a similar manner with any other nation. The problem is that, while this explanation may reflect a unique relationship between God and the Jewish People and that God has acted in a singular manner towards this nation, it would seem that it would still not fully elucidate why the Jewish nation is inherently unique, qualitatively different, in its essence, from any other nation. Is it solely that the Jewish nation possesses a distinctiveness because God chose it or is it that this nation is inherently unique and that is why God freed it, chose it? Comparing the oneness, the uniqueness, of the nation to the Oneness of God, would seem to support the latter vision of the nation’s distinctiveness; our uniqueness should be inherent to our very being as a nation. That Am Yisrael was chosen by God to be His nation may make it unique in that it is God’s chosen nation, yet this distinction alone would still be, it would seem, external to the inherent essence and nature of the nation. It would be limited. Rashi’s explanation of our uniqueness through the fact that God Himself took us out of Egypt, thus, demands further contemplation.

            That God acts in a certain, special manner towards a specific nation would clearly indicate that God has a special connection to this nation but it would still not seem to define the inherent uniqueness of the nation. This is only so, though, if the nation already existed and this act by God was done to benefit this existent nation. If, though, this act of God was not done to benefit an existent nation but was the very act by which this nation was created, the act would have to be recognized as an important defining characteristic of this nation. If this act of creating this nation was, furthermore, unique, there would be a strong argument that the result of this act, the created nation, would also have to be understood to be unique. Yetziat Mitrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, was not simply an act by God to benefit Am Yisrael. It was the act that created our nation.4 In that this act was absolutely unique for God Himself has not acted similarly, freeing any other nation from bondage, there would be a strong argument to conclude that the product of this unique act, Am Yisrael, must also be unique. Rashi is not just saying that our nation is unique because it was freed by God Himself. It is unique because it was created through this unique act of God freeing them from Egypt.

            In the creation of Am Yisrael through Yetziat Mitrayim, there would actually seem to be two components to this uniqueness. One is the specific nature of the act itself; no other nation was created through the direct involvement of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. There is, though, another aspect to this uniqueness. In a more generic manner, no other nation was created through an act of this nature, with parameters that actually defy the normative understanding of what nationhood is. When someone is asked to define the nature of a nation, invariably, the first parameter that is mentioned is land. A nation defines the grouping of various individuals in a certain geographic area that wish to bind together to form a political and, perhaps, cultural entity. This was not the case with Klal Yisrael. It was formed outside of its land. Am Yisrael is truly unique, a totally unique nation in its very definition. It is a grouping of individuals who were bound together by God to form a political, cultural and religious entity that is devoted to Him.

            What does this say, though, about the land? The fact that the land, unlike any other nation, is not a parameter in the defining creation of the nation does not, in any way, lessen the significance of the land to the nation. The relationship, though, is different. The Raya Kuk often pointed out that a nation is like a human being; both are components of its being. For the nation, the spirit of Am Yisrael is the Torah, the spirit that defines our thoughts and behaviours. The guf, body, is the land, Eretz Yisrael, the distinctive physical container that should hold our spirit, our neshama, just as it is a distinct body that holds the distinct neshama of every human being. Without dominion over Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish nation is like a soul without its body. The neshama needs the guf.

            These words, though, further describe the absolute uniqueness of our nations. For most nations, that land which they inhabit is the dominant parameter in the development of their national spirit. Their neshama, thus, is defined by their guf; their soul is defined by their body. For Am Yisrael, the opposite is the truth. Our spirit was developed outside of the land and then taken into the land. Our neshama, thus, permeated our guf; the soul of our spirit was taken into the land, to fill the land with this spirit so that the created entity of body and soul, Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael reaches a unique dimension. The result is kedusha, an am kodesh in an eretz kodesh.

            During these most trying times, we must remember this. This is our objective and this is our being. This is our uniqueness.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Notes

(1)  Devarim 6:4.
(2) 
Divrei Hayamim I 17:21.
(3) 
See, also, T.B. Chagiga 3a.
(4) 
See, further, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Edoth 2:23.where he defines Pesach as the celebration of the physical creation of our nation.

(c) Nishma, 2008.


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2006 NISHMA