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Vaetchanan – The Chosen People: Chosen for what?

Jul 28, 2023

One of the most common phrases used to describe the People of Israel is “The Chosen People.” We find the first mention of this idea in this week’s Torah portion. The term “chosen” was not used for the people of Israel until this point. 

Because he loved your forefathers, He chose his descendants after him; and He took you out before Him with his great strength from Egypt. – Deuteronomy 4:37 

To be “chosen” means to be singled out. But the purpose for which God chose Israel is not mentioned. The obvious question, then, is, “chosen for what?” A few chapters later, when this idea is mentioned for the second time, this question is answered.

For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God; the Lord, your God, chose you to be for Him a treasured people [heb. ‘am segula’] from all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. – Deuteronomy 7:6

The answer, then, is that Israel is chosen to be a “treasured people.” The Hebrew term segula, translated here as “treasured,” appears four times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. In all four instances, segula appears as a description of the people of Israel. The first time the word appears is in Exodus 19, as God introduced the covenant at Sinai.

“Now, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be for me a treasured possession (heb. ‘segula’) from among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel. – Exodus 19:5-6

The great commentator Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (13th century Spain) explains the phrase as follows: 

You shall be for me a ‘segula’ from all the nations: that you shall be a treasure in my hand like a beautiful object that the king will not give into the hand of others. (see Ecclesiastes 2:8). Or ‘segula’ may mean cleaving [or closeness].” – Nachmanides on the Torah, Exodus 19:5

According to Nachmanides, to be “treasured” means to be beautiful, dear, and closely guarded. Based on this, the meaning of am segula – “treasured people,” is that the people of Israel is a nation that is dear to God and that He guards closely.

The greatest of all commentators, Rashi (11th century France) further develops this idea. 

Segula: A favored [or beloved] treasury as in ‘and the treasure of kings and provinces’ (Ecclesiastes 2:8) [i.e.] expensive vessels and precious stones that kings store away. – Rashi, Exodus 19:5

Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda (14th century Spain) adds the following comment:

That which is hidden, covered, and concealed from the eye is called ‘segula’. – Comment to Exodus 19:5

From all the above classical Jewish commentaries, we see that the term am segula – “treasured people” – means that the Jewish people are not only dear to God but protected and hidden from view as well.

The word segula appears four additional times in the Bible. 

For the Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure. – Psalm 135:4

I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. – Ecclesiastes 2:8

Moreover, because I have set my affection on the house of my God, I have given to the house of my God, over and above all that I have prepared for the holy house, my own special treasure of gold and silver: – 1 Chronicles 29:3

“They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “For the day that I make a special treasure. And I will have compassion on them as a man has compassion on his own son who serves him.” – Malachi 3:17

Psalm 135 uses segula in the same manner as it is used in the Torah, to describe the nation of Israel. In the verses from Ecclesiastes and 1 Chronicles segula refers to the wealth of kings, Solomon in Ecclesiastes and David in Chronicles. The fourth instance is interesting in that this is the only time segula appears as referring to something other than Israel or wealth. While most translators have segula referring to the nation of Israel here as well, this interpretation is not supported by the syntax of the verse. For example, here is the New King James Bible translation of this verse.

“They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “On the day that I make them My special treasure. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.”

The inclusion of the word “them” is simply not what the verse says in Hebrew. The translators were likely basing themselves on the fact that in most other instances, segula does in fact refer to Israel. But the simplest and most direct reading of the Hebrew is that segula refers to the day. For segula to refer to Israel here in Malachi, one must admit that a word is missing from the verse.

Simply put, the order of the words in the verse suggests that segula here refers to “the day”, i.e. the redemption day itself. Rashi on Malachi comments:

For the day that I make a segula – that I have stored away and set aside to pay out my rewards. – Rashi Malachi 3:17 

Segula does not mean only a dear treasure that is guarded and stored away, but one that is to be brought out into the open at some later date. This meaning of segula is supported by the use of the word in the Talmud. 

If one has received funds that belong to a minor, he should make a segula for [the minor]. – T.B. Bava Batra 52a 

The rule the Talmud describes pertains to an orphaned minor. If, due to either a lawsuit, an inheritance, or as a guardian, someone is holding or controlling funds belonging to the minor, he should not give the funds directly to the minor. Rather, he must set up a trust account. Later when the minor reaches adulthood, they can then access the funds. The sages of the Talmud used the word segula to describe the trust account. 

If we combine all the above sources, we may suggest that the definition of segula is a treasure that is closely guarded from harm. It is concealed from view and saved until a later date in the future at which time it will be the right time for it to be brought out into the open to realize its purpose.

The People of Israel are described as am segula – “a segula nation.” Has this people been kept out of public view? We who have lived in the twentieth and twenty- first centuries might laugh at this notion. Jews are anything but out of view. However, for most of the history of the past two thousand years Jews – the am segula – were very much hidden. General history books contain virtually nothing relating to the Jewish people during this period. Jews were a tiny, powerless minority who played almost no role in history. God stored us away, so to speak, protecting us and hiding us from the world. It is only recently, over the past century or so, that this am segula has been brought out of hiding and has assumed a most visible place on the world stage. 

The answer to our question, “chosen for what?” can be summed up this way. The nation of Israel is precious to God. We were protected and hidden away until such time as God chooses to bring us out of hiding to fulfill our true purpose.

Perhaps this change is the beginning of the fulfillment of the verse in Malachi quoted above, describing the ultimate redemption of Israel and the world.

For the day that I make a segula, I will have compassion on them as a man has compassion on a son who serves him.

May God bring the redemption speedily in our days.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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