Unity, Not Uniformity
Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )
When the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai they were, in a very real sense, a brand new People. They had come down to Egypt as a family, perhaps even a tribe; now they were an emancipated nation. In a very short period of time they experienced a staggering series of national crises: The threat of war against a superpower, miraculous salvation and the celebration at the sea, as well as a surprise military attack at the hands of Amalek. They had seen miracles and experienced panic, but now, at the foot of Mount Sinai, they experienced something new: Unity.
The Torah's description of the Israelite encampment at Sinai includes a nuanced turn of phrase which is lost in the English translation. Whereas all of their travels and encampments up to this point are described in the plural, this stop alone is described in the singular:
In the third month after the Israelites left (plural) Egypt, on the first of the month, they (plural) came to the desert of Sinai. They (plural) had departed from Rephidim and had arrived (plural) in the Sinai Desert, camping (plural) in the wilderness. Israel camped (singular) opposite the mountain. (Ex. 19:1-2)
This unusual shift leads Rashi to describe the atmosphere of this particular encampment "as one person, with one heart." The rapturous description of a people in sync, connected, with one heartbeat, is one of the most uplifting messages in the entire Torah.
There is, however, a downside to unity: Too often, it is achieved through uniformity - particularly uniformity achieved by force. Individuals who don't "fit in" may feel threatened and lost. Moreover, uniformity can seep into the realm of ideas, stifling creativity and vanquishing individuality.
With these pitfalls in mind, a number of commentaries point out that the unity at the foot of Mount Sinai was the backdrop for the great Revelation, which itself was characterized by individuality: The theophany at Sinai was perceived, understood and appreciated by each and every member of the nation in a unique way. Each person experienced the Revelation in accordance with their unique personality, aptitude and capabilities. Rambam (Maimonides) succinctly expressed this school of thought by explaining that what was revealed at Sinai was truth - absolute, pristine truth. Each person was able to perceive this truth according to their individual level of spiritual sensitivity.
The mystical tradition takes a different approach to the Revelation. In mystical sources, the Revelation at Sinai is seen as a multifaceted truth which was experienced, grasped and internalized differently by each person precisely because of their individuality. Because each of their souls was unique, each member of the assembled nation perceived the Revelation in their own unique way, and the truth of the Revelation spoke to them and touched their souls in a unique way.
According to this mystical approach, the multifaceted nature of the Revelation - of truth itself - explains how and why the ongoing halakhic and exegetical processes that expound upon the Torah contain so many different opinions: They reflect diverse perceptions of the Word of God. All are legitimate, and all are part of a whole, just as each individual that stood at Sinai was part of one unified nation.
Our challenge is to perceive opinions that differ from our own as containing a glimpse of Divinity, a different aspect of truth that had eluded our grasp. We must find within ourselves the love and strength to value and cherish those divergent opinions, as well as the individuals who express them. This is the lesson of the strange wording of the verses leading up to the Revelation: Unity, not uniformity, made the Revelation at Sinai possible. At that moment in our history, we were able to unite in our diversity. Against that backdrop, the Revelation, which was uniquely perceived by each member of the community, became a possibility. In appreciating and respecting one another's individuality, the Revelation allowed the new nation to achieve unity. Each individual understood that the Revelation experienced by every other person was unique, different than his or her own experience - and equally true, equally valuable.
Unfortunately, human nature seems prone to attack what is different, whether it be a difference in the color of skin, the type of clothing, or the ideas espoused by others. If we are to learn to value others, we must constantly be aware that their "differentness" may be revealing to us a facet of truth that our own souls somehow missed. We must strive to maintain the sense of family that we brought with us to Egypt: A healthy family learns to accept each member as an individual. Not all the children need have the same interests for a family to be loving and respectful. When we accept different ideas and attitudes, we find that the things which unite us are stronger than any of the things that challenge our unity. Just as the heartbeat sustains all the parts of the body, each with its unique role and function, so, too, the heart of the Jewish People must beat with unity - but not necessarily uniformity.
For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2015/01/audio-and-essays-parashat-yitro.html
- In his Guide for the Perplexed (2:35), Maimonides discusses the superiority of Moshe's prophetic ability, which became manifest at the Revelation.
- Recanati, Shmot 20:1.