ONE PEOPLE, ONE HEART
Rabbi David Walk
The Bi-Cultural Day School here in Stamford, Connecticut has a strong tradition of sending the eighth grade to Israel every year for almost a month. For many years this trip took place in February. There was something wonderful about that idea, namely, I got to miss the coldest, snowiest month of the year here in the Northeastern USA. Even though we encountered some snowy days in the Yerushalayim area over the ten years I've been accompanying the group, that snow disappears within a day and we're back to reasonable touring weather. However, this year the school decided to shift the tour to May. Please, believe me when I say that my loathing of Connecticut winters had nothing to do with the decision. The idea was for these wonderful young people to experience Holocaust Day (Yom Hashoa), Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut) in the Holy Land. In school we often refer to these days (together with Yom Yerushalayim) as the 'Yoms". Anyway, the experiment was an overwhelming success.
On the night after Yom Ha'atzmaut, we sat the kids down in a circle and asked them to share their feelings about the twin events of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut. Just recalling the event gives me chills. These amazing young people to a person proclaimed that the experience was unbelievable. The point that almost every speaker made was that it was truly wonderful to share the emotions of these incredible experiences with total strangers. Whether it was crying during the siren at the Kotel or listening to a mother describe how her son made the ultimate sacrifice for the people and the land at the National Military Cemetery on Har Herzl on Memorial Day, or dancing in the middle of the Jaffa Road or spraying that string stuff with total strangers on Yom Ha'atzmaut, it was mindboggling! One young woman recounted how someone she had never seen before in her life, gave her a tissue when she was crying. They all claimed that they felt a connection to the nation and the State that they had never experienced before. They felt Israeli. No amount of classroom instruction could ever teach that lesson.
There is tremendous power in this sense of total unity. We recognize that power on Shavuot. When the Jews left Egypt there was a disunity and division in the nation. This sorry state of affairs is noted at the shores of the Sea, as the Egyptian chariots approached: Moses said to the people, Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is only today, but you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity. The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent (Exodus 14:13 & 14). The Midrash explains that verse to mean that there were four groups among the Jews. One wanted to flee, another was ready to return to Egypt, some wanted to fight and, finally, there were those who desired negotiations. However, by time the Jews have arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai the situation has dramatically altered. The verse records: They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain (19:2). The verse begins with three verbs in the plural to describe the behavior of the nation, but the fourth and final verb is in the singular. By time the Jews have come to mountain of the Lord, they are so unified that they are acting as one. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments: the singular form is used, denoting that they encamped there as one person with one heart.
How did this happen? I think that a close reading of the verse reveals the answer. They travelled together, they arrived together, and they camped together. Doing things together can have a powerful effect on community building, if those activities are seen as significant. I remember basic training in the army forged us into a cohesive unit by just doing tasks as a group. We learned to work as a single entity, and to trust and rely on each other. It was awesome and really quite simple. So, a simple understanding of group dynamics explains how the Jews were melded into a single minded organism at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but that's not what is truly significant.
Read on. The next verses tell us that when God observed this phenomenon, certain remarkable missions were assigned to the Jewish nation. First we were told that we were to be God's segula or treasure (For Tolkein fans: God's precious). Then we were tasked with a special role in the world of humanity as 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'. In other words, I believe that we should read this section as describing our special place in the world results from our unity of purpose. But how do we maintain this focus of purpose and duty? Well, that's the continuation of the text. We achieve this special status by accepting and following the Torah. Which comes to us, again, in part, because of this unity.
But, there's a problem (Isn't there always?). We know that mob psychology works even for negative activities. We see that with the generation of the Tower of Babel and the Egyptians chasing the Jews (Exodus 14:10). Is unity always a valued goal? Unity is wonderful, but only if the shared venture is for good. We believe that the unity achieved for nefarious purposes can't be maintained, as in the two cases cited.
This brings us to Shavuot and our renewed acceptance of the Torah. We should freshly embrace the Torah for so many wonderful reasons: It's the word of God. It's the instruction manual for humanity. It's the story of our people. But this year add to that illustrious list the idea that Torah keeps us together. Torah is the glue that binds us to that mission God gave us while encamped at Mt. Sinai. Torah unites us, and that sense of belonging is wonderful. Chag Sameach!