The promise of עם סגולה is first encountered in the leadup to the revelation at Mt.Sinai (Shemot 19:5). Towards the end of this week’s portion, it occurs again (Devorim 7:6), and is repeated an additional two times later on (Devorim 14:2, 26:18).
The term סגולה is usually translated as “treasure”, as for example in Koheleth 2:8 where we read: I assembled silver and gold and treasures of kings. Rashi (Shemot 19:5) explains the expression “treasures of kings” as reflecting the fact that kings keep their treasures stored and hidden. In other words, a treasure is carefully guarded and protected. And indeed Ralbag (Shemot 19:5) explains that the promise of עם סגולה refers to Divine providence and protection.
In our portion, the Torah (Devorim 19:5) states: Hashem has chosen you to be his treasured nation. This might appear as though we have been endowed with this specialness unconditionally, simply by accident of birth. However, in Shemot 19:5, the Torah stresses: Now, if you listen to my voice, and you keep my covenant, then you will be my treasure among the nations. We have indeed been designated as G-d’s treasured nation – the nation that He will protect – but this designation is conditional upon keeping the covenant.
Elsewhere, (see e.g. Devorim 11:8ff, 28:1ff and 30:1ff), the protection and survival of the Jewish people is depicted as a consequence of keeping the Torah, suggesting that the key to Jewish survival is observance of the mitzvoth per se without any connection to our being a “treasured nation”. Thus, an apparent difficulty arises: Is it our designation as a “treasured nation” that entitles us to Divine Providence and protection? Or is it keeping the mitzvoth?
It seems to me that there is no real difficulty here: The concrete expression of our designation as a treasured nation is the selection of the Jewish people to be the recipients of the Torah. And the Torah contains the instructions for living which we are to follow in order to survive and flourish as a nation in the Land of Israel (Devorim 11:21). No wonder then that the first mention of “treasured nation” occurs in anticipation of receiving the Torah (Shemot 19:5)!
In other words, the treasured nation is actually the nation that has a treasure; it is the guardian of something absolutely unique – the Torah – which was given to no other nation. This however is a heavy and unique responsibility. For if we treasure our Torah, and walk in its ways, we will show all the nations of the world that the secret to survival is to serve the G-d of Israel.
To secure the world [by establishing] the Kingdom of Sha-dai… that people all over the world will know and acknowledge that all bow to You… and give homage to the Glory of Your Name and accept the yoke of Your Sovereignty… as it is stated (Zecharyah 14:9): And Hashem will be King of all the earth, on that day Hashem will be one and His Name will be one (Aleinu prayer).