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Yitro    5784   | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

02/12/2024 03:11:14 PM


As One Person with One Heart

If you ever attended a Pesach Seder at our home you would have heard my sister in law, a”h, ask how it is that we sing Dayeinu and declare that it would have been enough for us if, for example,  God had only taken us out of Egypt but not made judgements upon the Egyptians, אִלּוּ הוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִצְרַיִם וְלֹא עָשָׂה בָהֶם שְׁפָטִים, דַּיֵּנוּ. or had God split the sea but not brought us through the sea on dry land. 

“How would it have been enough for us,” she asked, “ if the sea had split but we had not been able to walk through the sea on dry land?”

She answered, each year at the seder, that Dayeinu more correctly means that it would have been sufficient cause for us to express our gratitude to God for each distinct stage of the process of redemption. But, no, it would not have “been enough” if God had split the sea but not brought us through the sea.

But that is not the only way to explain the curious order of Dayeinu and, occasionally at the seder I would offer this alternative explanation for at least one other curious pairing. 

אִלּוּ קֵרְבָנוּ לִפְנֵי הַר סִינַי, וְלא נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה. דַּיֵּנוּ.                                                                                                                                                           

If God had brought us close at Har Sinai but not given us the Torah it would have been enough. 

What would have been the significance of traveling all the way to Sinai without getting the Torah? How would that have been enough? The answer  is suggested by Rashi in his commentary on the Torah’s account of our arrival at Sinai:

                                                                                                                                 וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

They journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain,

The English elides a subtle but significant shift in the grammatical form of the Hebrew. They journeyed from Rephidim וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים in the plural form. They entered the wilderness of Sinai and encampted in the wilderness  וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר in the plural form. And Israel encamped there in front of the mountain וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃ in the singular form.

Rashi tells us that the Torah switches to the singular form because when we gathered at Sinai, we did so  כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד as one person with one heart. That unity was a necessary precursor for receiving the Torah. For at least one moment we were united in purpose and at that moment we were ready for revelation. Indeed that is a “dayeinu moment.” Even if nothing else had been accomplished, it was already enough that we were drawn close to God and in so doing, we were drawn close to one another.

But, this is not the first time that Rashi comments in this way when the Torah unexpectedly switches to a singular verb form when a plural verb form would have been expected. Just a few chapters earlier when the Torah describes the Egyptian army pursuing us into the sea it recounts

                                                                                                                                                     . וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם  נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם 

And the children of Israel lifted their eyes and, behold, Egypt was pursuing them.

 מִצְרַ֣יִם  נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם is in the singular form, which is not what we would expect for a pursuing army of hundreds of chariots. 

Rashi tells us that the Egyptian army of charioteers that chased after us to its own destruction and demise were united in their self-destructive hatred בְּלֵב אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד. 

What is the difference between the destructive unity of בְּלֵב אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד and the holy coming together of כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד? Maybe, and this is highly speculative, the Egyptian army had one goal and one objective בְּלֵב אֶחָד. They then united in a pragmatic bond כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד to pursue their common agenda with greater efficiency. Whereas when we stood at Sinai we had so much concern and love and solidarity for one another that we truly loved one another as ourselves, כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד, and out of that sense of mutuality and identification we were able to unite around a common agenda to embrace the Torah and its mitzvot.

But the frightening truth is that there is no way to tell if a moment of unity is positive or negative. We could not receive the Torah until we came together as one. On the other hand, the Egyptian army was united as one in pursuit of evil and self-destructive goals. Standing at Sinai and a ruinous military campaign were both the products of a mass of people who were brought together as one. 

Unity alone is a neutral value. The salient questions that need to be asked are: How was this unity created? What is this unity being used to accomplish? Is it something holy or something destructive? 

Aristotle was the first to categorize human beings as “social animals.” Therefore our ability to come together as one is not fundamentally different from any other natural feature of our species. In contrast to Aristotle, the ancient translation of the Torah into Aramaic by Unkelos translates the phrase  וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃ “And the man became a living being” as וַהֲוַת בְּאָדָם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָא which more literally means “and the person became a speaking creature.” We are not social animals, according to Unkelos, we are creatures who use words. Those words imply a discourse in which I say one thing and you say something else and the conversation that fills the space between us is definitional to who we are as human beings.

Moments of unity can be sacred, but they can never endure. We were united when we received the Torah, but once the Torah was given to us, when it was no longer in Heaven, we immediately had to deliberate and debate in order to determine the ongoing meaning of that Torah in our lives. The counters of that debate which expand the “palace of Torah” forever, is the realm of the Oral Torah which is characterized by disagreement and discussion.

If we can avoid fetishizing unity, we can embrace diversity of all kinds  in our own communal life. When Sara and I first visited this community last January we were so impressed by the choices made by families at Ohev about how to educate their children. Families here routinely select the best educational option for each of their children and of course each family will have different educational priorities and of course each child will have different educational needs and of course those needs and priorities may interact in new ways from year to year,  and why would anyone expect conformity about something so important  in a large and vibrant community? 

The same is true regarding the way that we all practice Judaism in our private lives. The shul’s commitment to Modern Orthodox halakhah in communal settings creates a common denominator for people with very different backgrounds, and who believe very different things, and who practice Judaism very differently in our private lives to come together and share friendships and enjoy the blessings of communal life. But community does not entail conformity. As the shul continues to refine and clarify its ritual practices, I hope and expect that we will find moments to honor the diverse ways that we each practice Judaism. Since diversity is to be expected rather than feared, we may even see more of the diversity reflected inside the walls of this building. 

This week I am departing for a very brief trip to Israel. I’m so glad that I’ve been able to schedule meetings with so many parents and children of Ohev Sholom members. I will convey love from you to all of them and to everyone there with whom I speak. This is my first visit to Israel since the war and I do not quite know what I expect to find. I know I will encounter grief and I know I will encounter resilience and I hope I can convey some of that resilience to you all when I come back.  I know that the Israel I encounter in February 2024 will be a different country than the place I last visited two years ago. 

But I also know that Israel in February 2024 is a different country than it was in January or December.  After a hiatus of several months, political debates and disagreement are slowly returning to Israel. For the past four months an overwhelming sense of solidarity and unity of purpose temporarily muted the divisions and debates and political competition that have always characterized life in Israel. It will be challenging for us, I suspect, to see that unity dissipate and it will be challenging to us if the return of politics means a return of fierce and bitter disagreements between people we love.

But I think, nonetheless,  that the return of debate, disagreement, and politics to the fore of Israeli life is a hopeful sign. Israelis face weighty decisions with grave consequences for their very lives, for the entire region, and for future generations. There is no possibility that they will discover the best paths forward without free and contentious debate. 

If they can prioritize their love for one another, כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד, as one person, then they do not ever need to retain the conformity of בְּלֵב אֶחָד. We do not need God to give us the Torah again. It is no longer in Heaven and receiving it once should be enough, Dayeinu.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784