The concept of the Jewish people being Hashem’s am segulah is first introduced in Sefer Shemot 19:5: “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples (segulah mikol ha’amim), for Mine is the entire earth,” and is echoed, as well, by David Hamelech in Sefer Tehillim: “For G-d chose Jacob for Himself, Israel for His treasure (l’segulato).
Little wonder, then, that Rashi explains segulah as “a beloved treasure, like ‘and the treasures of the kings’ (Sefer Kohelet 2:8), [i.e., like] costly vessels and precious stones, which kings store away. So will you be [more of] a treasure to Me than the other nations [Mechilta].” In contrast, Onkelos explains “segulah mikol ha’amim” as “and you shall be more beloved before Me than all the other nations (“u’tehon kadamai chabivin mikol am’maiyah”).
In sum, two classic approaches emerge concerning the meaning of the term segulah. For David Hamelech and Rashi, it connotes “treasure,” and for Onkelos it denotes the uniquely beloved status we have in the eyes of our Creator.
My rebbe and mentor, the Rav — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993) — in at least one instance, defines segulah differently than either Onkelos or Rashi, namely, as “singularity.
“The word ‘singular’ means ‘being only one,’ ‘exceptional,’ ‘extraordinary’ and ‘separate.’ The word segulah in Hebrew similarly connotes singularity. In Exodus (19:5), the Torah enunciates the doctrine of the election of Israel as a cardinal tenet of our faith.” (Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin, “Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought Adapted from the Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” page 119)
As reflected by Rabbi Besdin, the Rav continues this line of reasoning, and emphasizes that segulah is not solely a theological construct. Moreover, it plays a crucial role in human interaction:
“Segulah may also describe relationships between people. For example, Jacob loved Rachel but he did not hate Leah, despite the verse, ‘And the Eternal saw that Leah was unloved’ (senuah, Sefer Bereishit 29:31). His bond to her merely suffered by comparison with Rachel … his relationship with Rachel was singular.’ There was a segulah dimension in this special love. It involved an intertwining of souls, a union beyond verbal description. It was more than emotional love; it was a oneness achieved, which is the highest rung of identification.” (Minor emendation my own)
Significantly, Rav Soloveitchik notes that Hashem’s unique relationship with the Jewish people is parallel to Yaakov’s marital bonds with Rachel and Leah:
“Similarly, the people of Israel are a segulah people, singularly valued by G-d; this involves no denigration of other nations. It is a specialness — a nation, one of its kind, which G-d has designated to preserve and disseminate His Divine teachings. This is singularity.
Clearly, for the Rav, the segulah nature of the Jewish people does not translate into a declaration of superiority over the other nations of the world. Instead, each nation has its own intrinsic value and inherent worth. As such, we must constantly emphasize and teach that all mankind are created b’tzelem Elokim (in G-d’s Divine image), and, therefore, all people are important before Hashem.
This Motzai Shabbat, Ashkenazi Jews will join our Sephardic brethren in the recitation of the Selichot penitential prayers, in spiritual preparation for the period of the Yamim Noraim. Throughout this unique time, let us ponder our singular relationship with Hashem as His am segulah. May this, in turn, lead to our desire for “an intertwining of souls, a union beyond verbal description” with our Creator, so that we may fulfill our role to “preserve and disseminate His Divine teachings” to all mankind.
V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom, kativah v’chatimah tovah and tizku l’shanim rabot.
Past drashot may be found at Rabbi Etengoff’s blog, reparashathashavuah.org