Parashas Yisro

This week’s parashah recounts the Giving of the Torah. In the days leading up to this crucial event, Hashem tells Moshe to convey to the Jewish People the following message (Shemos 19:5-6): “Now, if you hearken well to My voice and uphold My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations, for the whole Earth is Mine. And you shall be (v’atem tihiyu) unto Me as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Now, the statement “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” seems superfluous, since Hashem already told the Jewish People just before that “you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations.” Also, in the phrase v’atem tihiyu, the word atem is really unecessary; Hashem could have said simply tihiyu, and the word “you” would have been implied by the grammatical conjugation. The Maggid analyzes the meaning behind Hashem’s choice of language.
He explains Hashem’s message with a parable. A certain rich man sought to remarry after his first wife died. Instead of marrying a wealthy woman, he chose one of his maidservants as a wife. He said to her: “Up to now, you were just one of the maidservants. But now you are going to be my wife, and so you will be the mistress of the house. But do not think that your position as mistress will make you thoroughly more comfortable than the others. In one major respect, your life will be harder now than it was before. When you were just a maidservant, you were responsible only for the specific task that I assigned to you. I gave each maidservant a specific task: one is responsible for taking care of the silver vessels, another is responsible for taking care of the gold vessels, and so on. It was the same with you. But now that you will be my wife, you will be responsible for overseeing the entire household. If anything is out of order anywhere in the house, I will hold you accountable.
“This being so, you might wonder: ‘What good is it, then, for me to be the mistress of the house? How will it be clear that I am his wife, and not just another hired hand?’ So let me explain how our marriage will work.
“We each will do our part to make our relationship a success. I will take it upon myself to promote your honor within the household to the utmost, as befits the mistress of the house. I will take care to treat you with graciousness, kindness, and respect. But, for your part, you must not dwell too much on this honor. Rather, you should think of yourself as a maidservant on double-duty, charged with keeping an eye on everything in the house. If you take this attitude, I will make you greatly honored. But if you let your position as mistress make you haughty, and you cast aside the responsibilities I am giving you, then the end will be bitter. Instead of being honored, you will be disgraced.”
Similarly, Hashem chose the Jewish People as His special treasure. This role encompasses two aspects. One side of the coin is the wondrous love and tremendous honor that Hashem shows us. The other side is the duty we have to uphold the Torah and keep its commandments. Our Torah study and the mitzvos we perform play a key role in bringing the world to perfection. If we are lax in fulfilling our duty, the entire world suffers – and we, like the mistress in the parable, are held accountable. Thus it is written (Amos 3:2): “You alone have I known among all the families of the earth. Therefore I shall hold you accountable for all your iniquities.”
Accordingly, before giving the Torah to the Jewish People, Hashem advised them: “If you become prideful on account of your lofty station, you will become lax in your duties. And then the love I show for you will be compromised. Therefore, you must instill within your hearts the recognition that you are becoming My servants, so that you will be on alert to carry out your duties with great zeal and diligence. Then I will continue to show you love and honor.”
This is the message of our passage. Hashem tells us: “If you hearken well (shmoa tishma) to My voice and uphold My covenant, then you shall be unto Me a special treasure among all the nations.” Hashem is saying to us: “If you truly wish to continue heeding My message on a constant basis [the double verb indicating continued action], without losing hold of it, then you will do well to keep in mind that you will thereby be a special treasure unto Me among all the nations. I will take care to raise you high and show you great honor. But you must not dwell too much on this honor. Rather, you must resolve to act as ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Thus, the first part of Hashem’s message describes the role Hashem has designated for us, while the second part describes – as signalled by the word extra word atem – what we must do to maintain the relationship.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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