An Aristocracy of Humility
Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23
By Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
With the arrival at Sinai, Israel begins to forge in earnest its national identity. It is only in covenantal relationship with the God of their forefathers, the God to whom the entire world belongs, that the shared experience of bondage and liberation begins to take on meaning. It is here at Sinai that the full transition is made from servitude to Pharaoh to the service of God and his creation.
From the inception of the covenant, Israel is called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). This expression describes a careful balance of covenantal responsibilities, which reflect those of the first humans, who broke faith with God and whose disobedience caused the cosmic rift. In the first two chapters of Genesis, humankind is portrayed as having an essential participation in the creative process. God names the day and the night, the heavens and the land, the seas and the luminaries, thereby determining their essential natures and functions in the cosmic harmony. But Adam is allowed to participate in the naming process, describing the essential natures of each animal. In this respect the first man is given the original responsibility of reflecting God’s image in this world. He is also given sovereignty of the earth’s resources (Gen 1:26–28). In light of God’s benevolence, though, it is understood that the role of sovereignty requires that we care for the wellbeing of all that is put in our charge.
The second divine command to humankind is to till (l’avdah, lit. to serve or to worship) the ground (Gen 2:15). This command is replicated in God’s promised sign to Moses, that he and the Children of Israel (God’s renewed humanity) would “serve/worship God (ta’avdun et ha-elohim) by this mountain” (Exod 3:24). While the command is very much the same as the first command, it is actualized differently.
At Sinai the Israelites are told if they are obedient to the commands and ordinances of Torah, they will image God as kings and priests, sovereigns and servants. Worship will be their ritual performance of the primordial intention for triangulated service between God, humanity, and creation. In this respect Israel stands as the living link between God and the rest of humanity, repairing the cosmic breach that occurred with human disobedience. Biblical scholar Jon Levenson has referred to Israel’s dual role as “an aristocracy of humility.”
As Israel stood at the foot of Sinai and all the people responded “kol asher diber Adonai na’aseh, all that the Lord has said we will do” (Exod 19:8), they accepted not only the privileges of bearing the name of the King of all of the Earth, but also the covenantal responsibilities associated with those privileges. Likewise, as we stand before the Aron Kodesh each week it is as though we stand in continuity before Sinai and receive Torah for the first time. As we remove the Torah from the ark it is as though we are again saying “all that the Lord has commanded we will do.”
With this acceptance we are compelled to live lives that model God’s image in the world. It is our responsibility together with all of Israel to honor and exalt God by affecting his dignity. Sovereignty in God’s economy is not that which is grasped but rather that which is freely given. Though an odd dichotomy by normal reckoning, the power of God is perfected in our weakness. It is through service that we attain the mark of divinely gifted aristocracy. In this respect we are called follow the model of Israel’s greatest son. Yeshua abandoned the privileges of deity and did not claim or exploit his status (Phil 2:6–8). His role is not passive; rather he actively undertakes the role of a servant. So for Yeshua the incarnation in and of itself is a position of marginality. We intuit he loses far more when he enters the created order than we are capable of comprehending, or that the biblical authors can adequately convey. But we also understand intuitively that there is more to gain than the accepted politics of power can offer. It is through his sacrifice and servanthood that Yeshua is elevated to the right hand of God.
So this is true of Israel as well. We learn from both the Torah and the living Torah that we are given sovereignty to care for the created order. To care for the widow and the orphan, to feed the poor and the hungry, to provide hospitality for the stranger, to protect those who have no position or power, to care for all life forms on the planet and the environment that supports all of us. We do not have the option to claim status or to be self-protective; rather we must look out for all on whom the sun rises and sets.
At his final Passover Seder Yeshua said to his disciples, “The kings of the Goyim lord it over them; and those in authority over them are given the title, ‘Benefactor.’ But not so with you! On the contrary, let the greater among you become like the younger, and one who rules like one who serves. For who is greater? The one reclining at the table? or the one who serves? It’s the one reclining at the table, isn’t it? But I myself am among you like one who serves” (Luke 22:25–29 CJB).
Our national identity is tied in with our obedience to God and to his Torah, and in obedience to Messiah Yeshua who gave his life in wholehearted love to his Eternal Father. This week as we stand before the open ark let’s take seriously our declaration of responsibility and pledge meaningfully that all God has said we will do. Let’s take the first steps toward truly becoming an aristocracy of humility.