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Exodus The Broken Promise

By Jessica Spencer

Parashat Yitro Exodus 18:1-20:23

How do we cope when the world tips beneath us, when that which we thought would always be true changes in a moment? For many of us, October 7 shattered our beliefs about the world. When promises break, the breach can cut us off from our convictions and leave us adrift in newfound despair. In Parashat Yitro, God makes one such promise.

וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
And you shall be to 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)

What does God’s promise to be a kingdom of priests mean? The Netziv, a nineteenth-century Lithuanian commentator, offers this interpretation:

ממלכת כהנים. היינו הנהגה בין אדם לחבירו בדרך הישר והטוב כמו בני אדם אפרתים. ובאשר זה אינו תורה לפרש מהו הישר והטוב. וגם אין כל ענין ואין כל מקום וזמן שוים. ע״כ אין בזה תנאי ליהדות כיון שאין בזה חק קבוע. אבל רצון ה׳ בכך:
“Kingdom of priests”: meaning, behaving towards others in a moral and good way, like the people of Ephraim. And there is no law to explain what is moral and good. Also, not all matters and places and times are equal. As such, this is not a stipulation of Judaism, since this is not a fixed law. But it is the will of God.

For the Netziv, being a kingdom of priests means behaving justly towards others, in a way that cannot be understood only in terms of law—instead, it relies on our own conscience. To do God’s will means not only following the Torah, but also listening to our own inner sense of what is right.

But this exalted state does not last. In Lamentations, as Jeremiah grieves the destruction of Jerusalem, he says:
בִּלַּע אֲדֹנָי לא [וְלֹא] חָמַל אֵת כָּל־נְאוֹת יַעֲקֹב הָרַס בְּעֶבְרָתוֹ מִבְצְרֵי בַת־יְהוּדָה הִגִּיעַ לָאָרֶץ חִלֵּל מַמְלָכָה וְשָׂרֶיהָ׃
God has laid waste without pity all the habitations of Jacob, razed in anger fair Judah’s strongholds, desecrated the kingdom and its leaders. (Lamentations 2:2)

The destruction of Jerusalem leaves Israel no longer holy—it has been profaned. Eichah Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic midrash that wrestles with how to understand tragedy, connects this explicitly to our parashah:

. חִלֵּל מַמְלָכָה וְשָׂרֶיהָ, חִלֵּל מַמְלָכָה, אֵלּוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (שמות יט, ו): וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ. וְשָׂרֶיהָ אֵלּוּ שָׂרִים שֶׁל מַעְלָן, אַתְּ מוֹצֵא עַד שֶׁלֹא בָּאוּ הַשֹּׂוֹנְאִים הָיָה יִרְמְיָה אוֹמֵר לָהֶם עֲשׂוּ תְּשׁוּבָה שֶׁלֹא תֵּלְכוּ בַּגָּלוּת, אָמְרוּ לוֹ אִם יָבֹאוּ הַשֹּׂוֹנְאִים מַה יְּכוֹלִין לַעֲשׂוֹת לָנוּ, חַד אֲמַר אֲנָא מַקֵּיף לָהּ חוֹמַת מַיָּא, וָחֳרִינָא אֲמַר אֲנָא מַקֵּיף לָהּ חוֹמַת נוּרָא, וָחֳרִינָא אֲמַר אֲנָא מַקֵּיף לָהּ חוֹמַת פַּרְזְלָא, אֲמַר לְהוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּדִידִי אַתּוּן מִשְׁתַּמְּשִׁין, עָמַד הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְשִׁנָּה אֶת שְׁמוֹתָם שֶׁל מַלְאָכִים, דְּעַל מַיָא עֲבַד עַל נוּרָא וּדְעַל נוּרָא עֲבַד עַל פַּרְזְלָא, וְהָיוּ מַזְכִּירִין שְׁמוֹתָם מִלְּמַטָּה וְלֹא הָיוּ עוֹנִין לָהֶם, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (ישעיה מג, כח): וַאֲחַלֵּל שָׂרֵי קֹדֶשׁ, וְכֵיוָן שֶׁגָּרְמוּ הָעֲוֹנוֹת וּבָאוּ הַשֹּׂוֹנְאִים הִתְחִילוּ מַזְכִּירִין שַׂר פְּלָן אִיתָא עֲבִיד לָן מִילַיָּא פְּלָן, אֲמַר לֵיהּ לֵית בְּחֵילִי דַּאֲנָא מֵירִים מִינַהּ.
Desecrated the kingdom and its leaders: “desecrated the kingdom”—this is Israel, as it says: “And you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. “Its leaders”—these are the guardians above. Until the enemies came, Jeremiah would say to them: “Repent, so that you do not come to exile!”
They said to him: “If the enemies come, what can they do to us?”
One said: “I will surround it [Jerusalem] with a wall of water.”
Another said: “I will surround it with a wall of fire.”
Another said: “I will surround it with a wall of iron.”
The Holy Blessed One said to them: “You are using that which is mine.”
The Holy Blessed One rose and changed the names of the angels, that the one for water became for fire, and the one for fire became for iron. They would invoke their names below, but they did not answer to them.

This rabbinic story describes the people of Israel confident in their heavenly protection. When their enemies come, they call out to the angels, but receive no answer. The lack of response leaves Jerusalem in ruins and the nation profaned.

Reading Eichah Rabbah through the eyes of the Netziv, this silence from Israel’s heavenly protectors leaves the nation in more than grief and sorrow. God has taken away what made them a ‘kingdom of priests’—God has removed their inner sense of the moral and good. Although our theologies of suffering may be very different from the early rabbis, for many of us, too, we have lost a sense of the world as a just place. Such betrayals do this. As Gili Bar-Hillel, a children’s book translator who since the start of the war has instead spent her time volunteering, described her feelings in November:

“October 7th brought to light so much hidden ugliness—by which I mean, not merely historical injustices but just how corrupt and corruptible people and societies still are—that there seems to be no direction I can turn to for hope.”

When promises break, when those we count on for protection do not step up, when that which we believed to be unthinkable occurs, we can lose our convictions. We can lose faith in each other, in truth, in God. And it is hard to regain trust in our own sense of the moral and the good.1

How can we heal from such loss? How can we find hope again in the world? I wish that Eichah Rabbah gave an answer, but instead the text leaves us amidst the ruins. There are no simple ways to recover ourselves and our old values after tragedy. Instead, we have no choice but to take on the work of repair piece by piece, noticing what is still good in this world despite all its pain. We must seek out any opportunity to act with kindness, even when that takes more bravery than we can bear. As we do so, we can strain to hear the still, small voice inside each of us, hopefully louder each time. Only through this holy work can we return, and become a kingdom of priests before God once more.

1I am grateful to Dr. Talya Greene, whose work has shaped my thoughts on this subject.

Jessica is a final year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and also learns with Rabbi Daniel Landes at the Yashrut Institute. She is a co-founder of Azara, a new cross-communal British yeshiva opening Jewish texts to everyone. Listen to Hebrew College’s Speaking Torah podcast episode featuring Jessica’s work with Azara here.

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