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The Chosen People or the Purple People?

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This weekly Torah episode honors Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who was the High Priest of Midian. (The Midianites were the indigenous people of the Sinai Peninsula). Jethro journeys towards the Hebrew encampment at the foot of the Mountain of God, bringing along the First Family – Zippora and the two sons of Moses. The text does not reveal much about the family reunion, but we are told that Jethro, impressed by the deeds of the Hebrew Deity, proclaims his faith in this new God. Thus many traditions identity Jethro as the first official convert – a Hebrew by Choice. Choice – choosing and being chosen – is the key motif in this story. Jethro’s personal revelation is a prelude to the big act of the Revelation, which we get live from Mount Sinai, accompanied by thunder, lightning, and thick clouds. The Hebrew people (who were enslaved only chapters ago) are now invited, and possibly commanded, to make the choice of becoming a sacred nation – a God-chosen tribe. But unlike Jethro, who returns to the tents of Midian, the Hebrews are here to stay. Under the billowing mountain they become the Chosen People – a dense, challenging and oddly translated expression appearing here for the first time, verbatim from God:

Exodus 19:5 Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the Earth is mine (KJV).

The Hebrew word “segula,” translated here as “treasured possession,” is interpreted elsewhere as “special property,” “peculiar treasure,” “unique merit” and “special treasure.” The Pseudo-Jonathan translated it in this way: “you shall be more beloved before Me than all the peoples on the face of the earth.”
“Segula” definitely has legal overtones; it refers to valued property over which "one has exclusive possession." Yet all of our translators struggle with this word that summarizes the binding and conditional covenant. There is much to say about the Chosen People concept and not all of it is positive. The historical “otherness” of the Hebrew tribe that premiers here this week has yielded both pride and painful prejudice. In the 2007 "global village," with anti-semitism (disguised and/or fueled by anti-Zionism) on the rise again, the Chosen issue affects politics, theology, and socio-economic tensions that impact the lives of millions. Can Jewish Identify continue to thrive while deeply examining and deconstructing this notion of an “elite human squad”? Interestingly, the original Hebrew term does not, in itself, imply either exclusivity or preeminence. A plausible reading is that God cherishes the Hebrews and considers Israel a jewel in the crown of nations – but not the crown itself. In support of this interpretation of Israel as a special nation with some unique gifts in a world of special nations, we note that the word “segula” may also mean “purple.” Although purple is a famously regal shade, it is only one hue among many, and it is comprised of other colors (red and blue). In the divine palate, a color may be distinct yet not superior to other colors. Maybe we are not the Chosen People – what a relief! Maybe this is just a fashion statement (it is Fashion Week in New York) and not a social boundary. Maybe we’re supposed to be known as The Purple People?
Either way, this is one of those Biblical cases where the translation process becomes an opportunity for us to boldly explore how our past and present meet to create a better future. Parents and bosses know how challenging it can be to articulate the value of their children or colleagues without making invidious comparisons. Where in your family or workplace do you struggle with the concept of “value” or the word “special,” and how do you remind each person of his or her unique place?

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