Archive by category "Ask the Rabbi"

Ask the Rabbi: “A Great Nation”

Q: Hello Rabbi!

What is the definition of a Great Nation according to the Torah? We see in Deut 4:7-8 the following: What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Would it be correct to conclude from the following two verses that a great nation (at least one that God has specifically mentioned that he will make into a great nation) by definition of the Torah, means a nation that directly receives a revelation and a divine body of Law from GOD Almighty ? Please advise. Thank you!  


A: Dear Majid,

Thank you for your thoughtful question. Perhaps it is THE question for the time in which we live: What is a Great Nation? What makes a nation great? Your question also comes at an important time in the sequence of Jewish religious festivals. Starting from the second night of Passover (15th of Nisan), after the ancient Hebrews have been released from Egyptian bondage, they are taught to understand what freedom demands of them. Becoming a great nation does not come without a price. What freedom requires, as they will learn, is the responsibility to conduct their lives according to the Ten Commandments that, yes, will be divinely decreed, through the human agency of Moses, on Mount Sinai.  That is what the Torah portrays.

But first the ancient Hebrews must prepare themselves spiritually to receive these instructions. They must open themselves meditatively and tune in to their deepest feelings in order to receive the divine channel!  So for the next 49 days, as they undertake the trip towards this Mountain’s summit, they “Count the Omer” (sheaves of barley used as a memory aid); that is, they reflect each day on one of the attributes of the Divine (see) which they must emulate as an ideal. On the 50th day (the 6th of Sivan on the Hebrew calendar), they reach Mount Sinai, where, as a people and as individuals, they pledge to serve God by following the commandments – a moral code that has endured through the centuries — in their daily lives. This 50th day is the Jewish festival of Shavuot (7 weeks), which Jews everywhere still observe. This is the day when each individual is enjoined to imagine that he/she is actually standing on Mount Sinai NOW, receiving the commandments personally.

So every person has received – and symbolically continues to receive — instruction (Torah means “instruction”) as to what they should do. Later, in Leviticus, the Torah tells the ancient Hebrews how they should do it with complex rules for daily moral living and for cleanliness, both as individuals and as a society. “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 20: 26). This is how they will make God’s name great – by living a holy life, as defined by the Torah — and this is how they will be an example of good living to the pagan nations around them, how they will become a light to the nations. This is how the giving of the Ten Commandments and the subsequent rules to flesh them out are portrayed in the Torah. Following these instructions, and looking after all members of society – the widow, the orphan, the stranger, one’s parents – are what will make their nation great. Then the nation’s people will grow to be numberless as the stars.

It should be remembered (and often is not) that earlier in the Torah, when Hagar and Ishmael are sent away to keep peace in Abraham’s family, the Torah portrays God as promising to make a second great nation as well from Ishmael. “I will make a great nation of him too, for he is your seed” (Genesis 21:13), a divine promise still in the process of development.

Early Islam incorporated many Jewish thoughts and values. And of course, Christianity has been  instrumental in spreading Jewish values through the world. There is a reason why we call all three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the Abrahamic faiths. We are all descended from one physical progenitor, Abraham, and, for those who believe in divinity, from the same God.

To answer your question specifically, Majid, a great nation is one whose people live by enduring moral precepts, by both justice and compassion, and who have regard for helping the weakest members of their society as a component of their greatness.

Yes, the Torah depicts laws handed down by revelation directly received by Moses and conveyed to the ancient Hebrews. In our present society, not everyone believes in the divine, at least not as portrayed in the same form. There are many doubters, but unlike other religions, Judaism does not demand faith, at least not at the outset. What it does demand is to follow the commandments, the Mitzvot. It is an action religion; we are enjoined to DO. (And, of course, to do good things and to stand up against injustice.) We are also asked to study so that we will find out WHY we follow these commandments. Then hopefully, in the course of that study and those actions, we will find what societies through the ages have called God by many different names.

Can a nation or society be great without believing in divine revelation? That is another subject too large for this email. Of course, science and technology can become substitute gods too. So can power and money. Or fame. Sometimes we believe at certain times in our lives, but at other times we lose our faith. In my lifetime, both Communism and Nazi ideology shut out the divine, with disastrous consequences. Can you communicate a moral code without the concept of divinity? Yes, I think so. But it is hard to pass down what one personally believes through the generations. Ideas about what is good may change. Many of the great empires depicted in the Torah have not endured, but the moral code of the ancient Hebrews, which became integral to the Jewish faith, is still a staple of our society.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

Personally, I don’t know what God IS, Majid, but I do feel a strong connection to the universe and all its components – and to its created beings — and, for me, that is divine. As a rabbi, I try to open my mind and tune in whenever I can. And to keep learning.

Wishing you all of life’s blessings,

Rabbi Corinne Copnick