Parashat Va’era 5777 (On Israelite and American national destinies)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Abraham — knight of faith. Was willing to leave his home and be the first to swear fealty to the one God.
Isaac — gentle peacemaker. Builder of altars and digger of wells in the Land.
Jacob — cunning fighter. Wrestled with God and established a people.

So God made and affirmed covenants with them. None was perfect, but they had their virtues, and God singled them out, protected them, and maintained a special relationship with them. So far, so good. But then in our parashah, God says about the whole people:

וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים

and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God (Ex 6:7)

This national covenant was promised to Abraham and his descendants, but now is its time. And even the least worthy of Israel is seemingly included.

The question is: why? What can possibly be special about all Israel to make us deserving of this covenant?

Perhaps this is not so foreign to our thinking. Concepts of national destiny may not be as fashionable as they once were, but they have been certainly been popular in the past few centuries. And the discomfort we may feel with the term “chosen people” may be rather similar to that which some might feel with the term “American exceptionalism.”

Since early on in American history, however, American success was linked not to an innate quality nor an arbitrary selection, but to American virtue. Washington Irving wrote:

our rapidly-growing importance and matchless prosperity … are owing, not merely to physical and local, but also to moral causes. To the political liberty, the general diffusion of knowledge, the prevalence of sound moral and religious principles, which give force and sustained energy to the character of a people. (The Sketch Book)

And even the most famous, or perhaps infamous, manifestation of American destiny, was also inextricably linked to positive American values. John L. O’Sullivan, the journalist who coined the term Manifest Destiny, wrote of:

the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government

Despite the inherent arrogance and the assertion of divine election, it is the “development of the great experiment of liberty” that is the purpose of 19th century American expansionism. Following a long tradition of political thought, including Maimonides’ concept of tikkun haguf — perfecting the material world, American writers and leaders understood that for each individual to fulfill their potential, an enlightened and effective political structure must be in place. This notion of Manifest Destiny was underpinned by a benevolent desire to spread an American formulation of government that betters all lives and gives rights to all.

Tragically, this concept was used to justify the opposite of liberty. And these values were betrayed almost from the very beginning by the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and later by episodes of American Imperialism such as in the rest of the Americas and the Pacific. Every time a Native tribe was displaced, or a popular local leader pushed out, any claim to manifest destiny was undermined.

This bond between American destiny and American values sharpens the difficulty of God’s statement in our parashah “and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God”. Nahum Sarna notes in the JPS Commentary that the verbs וְלָקַחְתִּי — I will take — and וְהָיִיתִי ל I will be to — often signify a marriage, both in Biblical Hebrew and in Akkadian. This, then, is the betrothal in advance of the wedding at Sinai, when the people will say na’aseh venishma – we will do and we will listen, accepting our own obligations in this relationship.

Ramban specifically connects it to when the people arrive at Sinai and are told:

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים

And you shall be my treasured possession among all people. (19:5)

The first part of that verse, reads:

אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-בְּרִיתִי

If you listen to my voice, and observe my covenant ….

The Torah and its obligations, then, are both the justification and a necessary condition for the special relationship between God and Israel. Israel is only viewed as special by God when we agree to play this role, and adopt the responsibilities laid out in the Torah.

The question still stands, though, why was God willing to “get engaged” to Israel, as it were, before the people accepted their role in the covenant?

The extended Midrash that forms the bulk of the maggid section of the seder includes this comment, referring to when Israel was in Egypt:

וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי – מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִים שָׁם.

When the Torah says “they became a nation there” it teaches that Israel was distinctive there.

Other midrashim give more detail, specifying that, whilst in Egypt, as a safeguard against being lured into idolatry, the Israelites retained distinctive names and languages and practiced circumcision, even after Pharaoh’s decree to cast infant boys into the Nile.

In doing so, they proved that they were able to hold onto their identity and values, even in the most trying of circumstances, when everything around them seemed opposed to such commitments. Perhaps this is what God saw in Israel that prompted the promise to enact with them the Covenant at Sinai.

As the Tenakh continues, and beyond, it was not a linear progression towards ever more faithful adherence to the Torah mandates that were accepted at Sinai. Through dissent in the wilderness, corruption and false piety in the period of the Kings and prophets, and cultural conflict leading to civil war in the time of the Maccabees, there have been steps forwards and backwards. Nevertheless, we proceed, attempting to figure out how to stay true to the covenant in each era.

We have the Torah from which we draw our values and obligations, and America is a nation that also ties its identity, its values, perhaps even its destiny, to a series of written compositions. In his “A More Perfect Union” speech, President Obama noted that the Constitution:

promised its people liberty and justice and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough … What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

For many of us, America this week may not have felt like “a more perfect union”, but as God saw that the Israelites could maintain their values in trying times, I invite us each to look around us and recognise in so many of the residents of this country that enduring commitment to its founding values of Liberty, Tolerance, Equality, and Truth.

Shabbat shalom.