In our previous videos, we explored the power of monotheism in building a just and humane society. In this one, we’ll see how the Torah that was given to Avraham’s children was not just for us, but rather, was designed to transform all human civilization.
During Avraham’s life, he took the first steps towards spreading the belief in God and a lifestyle based on ethical monotheism. But ultimately, he wasn’t meant to do this himself; the job was to be accomplished by the “great nation” – the Am Levadad – that was to come from him.
In the opening video, we explained that the Am Levadad’s role in the world is expressed succinctly by God’s introduction to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where He said, “ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש” – “you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Priests are people tasked with bridging the gap between man and God – helping people worship God, teaching them His ways, and transmitting God’s messages and blessings to the people. The descendants of Avraham – the Children of Israel, who later got the name “Jewish People,” and who we call the Am Levadad – are meant to fulfill this role of priestsfor the rest of the people in the world. And we were told very clearly that the way for us to do that would be by following the laws of the Torah.
After the narrative of Avraham’s life comes to an end, the remainder of the book of Bereishit (Genesis), as well as the first part of Shemot (Exodus), describe the process of how that unique Am Levadad came into existence in Egypt, was miraculously redeemed from slavery and arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah. That moment was perhaps the most significant in human history, as this was when the concept of the Am Levadad (which had been told to Avraham at the very beginning) became a concrete reality and an operational plan of action. The sixteenth-century biblical commentator Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains the term “kingdom of priests” exactly the way we have interpreted it: “And by this, you will be My treasure (Shemot 19:5) compared to them all, for you will be a kingdom of priests, to understand and to teach the entire human race, to call to them all in the name of God, that they may worship Him in unison.”
In other words, although the Torah was given to the people of Israel, and although most of its laws obligate only us, the Torah’s purpose is to elevate and perfect all of humanity! Meaning that ultimately, the Torah is for everyone.
Indeed, the Torah commands a set of universal laws that lay out the basic requirements for human society based on the principles of ethical monotheism: recognition of God, justice, and kindness. The rabbis refer to this code of laws by the term “שבע מצוות בני נח”, “the Seven Noahide Laws” – although it is important to point out that these are seven categories; there are actually a lot more than seven specific laws.
But as the priests who must lead the others and serve as an example, the people of Israel are obligated to live according to much higher standards of holiness and righteousness; we must be not only a nation dedicated to ethics and monotheism but a “holy nation”. To accomplish that, in addition to the universal requirements, we must observe the 613 commandments given to us at Sinai, which regulate every aspect of our national, communal, and personal lives.
The bottom line, therefore, is that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, are meant to follow the Torah, which means to observe the particular commandments given to them.
Let’s stop and process that for a moment: the Torah is not the “Jewish Bible,” and following the Torah doesn’t mean being Jewish. Rather, although the Torah was given to the Nation of Israel, it is for all people to follow. Since the Jews (the Am Levadad) are the priests – or perhaps the ambassadors – of the Torah for the rest of the world, we need to keep a different set of rules. But the goal is to spread the beliefs and basic lifestyle of ethical monotheism to everyone.
The Torah is not the “Jewish Bible,” and following the Torah doesn’t mean being Jewish.
This leads to an important question. If the Am Levadad’s purpose is to bring God’s messages to the rest of humanity, wouldn’t it make much more sense for us to be dispersed throughout the nations, living as separate communities among the people we are meant to influence, instead of living by ourselves in the land of Israel?
It is true, of course, that for much of Jewish history that’s exactly what happened – we lived as religious communities in host countries throughout the Diaspora, where we were able to interact with other nations and influence their cultures and history – and we did. And also, along the way, contact with those cultures also taught us many things and enriched us in many ways.
But the thing is, that the Torah presents exile as a punishment, not an ideal. Why is that? If the Jews are the priests tasked with bringing Torah to the whole world, why are we meant to live together in the land of Israel, away from the rest of the world?
This question is strengthened by the fact that the Torah describes us as kohanim, or priests. When we look at the kohanim among the people of Israel, we see that in contrast to the other tribes, they did not receive an inheritance of their own. Rather, the priests (and the broader tribe of Levi from which they come) were given cities all over the country, so they could live among the tribes whom they were supposed to influence. If this is the metaphor, we would expect a parallel situation regarding the kingdom of priests – all nations have their own territories, but the priests should, according to this analogy, not have a land of their own, but rather should be given places to live among the other nations! So why does the Torah want the Am Levadad to live separately in the land of Israel?
I think the answer to this question can be found by looking again at the expression ממלכת כהנים, a kingdom of priests. Indeed, we are to fulfill the role of priests, bringing the other nations closer to God and bringing His messages and blessings to them. But we are meant to do so as a nation - not exclusively or even primarily as individuals or communities. We are meant to model by example what it means to be a גוי קדוש, a holy nation.
For this to work, it is essential for the Am Levadad to be a sovereign nation that rules a territory and controls everything that happens there. Living as minority communities in exile prevents (and exempts) us from observing many of these commandments and thereby modeling many of the aspects of the ideal human society that the Torah wants us to represent.
As we will explain more fully in Video #7: “Two Paths to Redemption”, God’s intention was for the Israelites to take the Torah from Mount Sinai, and bring it with us into the land of Israel, which – as we have previously noted – is strategically located in a geographically central area. There, we were to set up our holy nation and live according to the Torah’s laws.
If we would have faithfully carried out this command and implemented all of the Torah’s systems, we would have created an almost utopian society at the center of human civilization. It would have taken some time, but slowly others would come to see the wisdom of the Torah’s commandments and would want to build their societies in similar ways. Gradually, the nations of the world would coalesce around these norms, and ethical monotheism would become the basis for all human society. Isaiah’s inspiring vision of the Days to Come would emerge, gradually and methodically, through a natural process of history!
And that, therefore, was God’s plan for history. The Torah was given to the people of Israel, as the engine that was to drive all human moral and spiritual development worldwide.
Isaiah’s inspiring vision of the Days to Come would emerge, gradually and methodically, through a natural process of history.
In the next two videos, we’ll drill down a bit into different aspects of the Torah’s commands, to understand a bit more about how this was meant to work. And in video #7, we’ll talk about how God’s plan dealt with the possibility that the Am Levadad might not fully live up to its responsibility.
I actually think the polytheist and the atheist are quite similar to each other – in fact, they’re almost identical! One might even describe atheism as a special form of polytheism.
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s realize that in classic polytheistic conceptions of the world – even if there was often a “head” or “chief” god, there was no single ruler in charge of everything. Instead, the polytheist viewed the universe as a chaotic place controlled by various powers, which he personified and called “gods”. While the specific names and mythologies varied from one region or culture to another, there were striking similarities between them. They all believed in a pantheon of gods, each of which was thought to be responsible for a different natural or human phenomenon: there was usually a sun god and a moon god, a god of wind, a god of rain, a god (or often, goddess) of fertility, a god of war, a god of love, and so on. And at least in ancient times, these gods often looked and behaved very much like humans: They were jealous of each other, fought with one another, formed alliances, and deceived one another.
To survive in such a world, the polytheist would worship the various gods and try to figure out what they needed so he could win their favor and entice them to act in his interest. He might also engage in magical rituals that he believed could harness various forces to help him.
Now let’s compare this to the way a modern atheist sees the world. Unlike the polytheist, she doesn’t believe in gods with personalities and emotions. But beyond that distinction, her vision of the world is very similar. She also sees a chaotic universe in which various forces interact and clash with one another. Her universe, like that of the polytheist, has no ruler, and nobody in charge.
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