We often hear about the importance of being united as a people. We hear the call for unity in America, which is increasingly fragmented along racial, political and socio-economic lines. And we persistently hear the call for unity among the Jewish people who throughout our history have had more than our share of disputes and infighting. But what does it mean to be unified? Does it mean that we must all think the same way and believe the same things? That hardly seems desirable or even possible for a group of people that is not a cult but a large community or nation. Diversity among people is a good thing. So, what does it mean to be unified?
This week’s Torah portion- Yitro- gives us a glimpse of what the concept of unity might mean. In Exodus chapter 19, we read that the Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian enslavement, prepare to meet God at Mt. Sinai: “They entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel camped there in front of the mountain.” In the verse there is an odd grammatical form used in the Hebrew text that is not mirrored in the English translation. The phrase “Israel camped there in front of the mountain” uses the singular form of the verb “camped” while all other references to the Israelites use the plural form. It’s as if the Hebrew text is referring to the Israelite nation as a single person, not many people.
Several commentators interpret this quirk in the Hebrew text by saying that in this moment, the Israelites were unified as a nation. For example, Rashi famously writes that the text uses the singular form because the people were “one nation with one heart as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai.” But Rashi’s comment still doesn’t explain what it means to be unified. Surely, it couldn’t be that all the people had the same emotional and spiritual response to the Revelation by God. In what way were they of one heart?
A midrash called the Mechilta offers an especially meaningful and helpful insight:
When it says “Israel encamped” there (Sinai), it uses the singular form “vayichan.” When they were traveling, as in the Book of Numbers, it uses a plural form. This implies that at other times they were divided, but here they were unified. When they gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai they felt a shared kindness, loved one another, and were thus ready and able to receive the Torah. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai)
Based on the interpretation of the Midrash, unity does not imply consistency of thought or belief among people. Rather, it suggests shared kindness and love, understanding and tolerance. Unity implies the capacity to make room for the ideas, feelings and needs of others, even when we disagree with them. Unity therefore demands compromise and acceptance of the idea that no single member of a large and diverse community or nation will get everything he/she wants. In the context of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites behaved toward one another with kindness and love, thus they were unified as a people. Their unity made Divine revelation possible.
These interpretations convey to us that shared kindness and love lie at the foundation of a decent, and democratic, society. To be a democracy requires respect for the voices and opinions of its people. A democratic society thrives not only on the rule of law but on tolerance and understanding.
I write this message with a special and focused concern about the modern-day nation of Israel living in the State of Israel. Israel is a democracy where cherished human and civil rights are upheld. Israel has a truly democratically elected government, and guarantees the freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press.
But, oddly and disturbingly, freedom of religion is imperiled in Israel. While the State of Israel does not mandate the practice of any religion, and each citizen’s freedom to practice or not practice religion is steadfastly defended, the government gives control of key social institutions, among them marriage, divorce and conversion, to the Chief Rabbinate, a union of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who, empowered and funded by the State, impose their strict religious views on Israeli society. Unable to achieve their aims through education and persuasion, the ultra-Orthodox use coercion, threats and the state authority granted to them to sustain the religious ideals they believe must underlie Israeli society.
This complex issue deserves to be thoroughly discussed and understood. A place to start is by reading the Vision Statement authored by Rabbi Marc Angel, Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel. At the end of the statement, you will find scores of signatures of Jewish leaders. I encourage you to add your own name in support of the Vision Statement and thus express your own passion and wish that the State of Israel enrich its democracy by strengthening the freedom of religion afforded its citizens.
True democracy, in Israel or anywhere else in the world, is made possible not by imposing uniform ideas on people but by living by the values of respect, kindness and shared love of our fellow Jew and human beings.