One of the central themes of the episode of Har Sinai is the immense unity that the Jewish people enjoyed as they encamped at the foot of the mountain. Rashi, in his famous comment citing the Midrash on the verse, Vayichan shom Yisroel neged ha har, extrapolates from the usage of the singular vayichan rather than the plural vayachanu, notes that the Jews were, k’ish echad b’lev echad, like one individual with one heart.
In an odd twist, however, in an earlier comment Rashi attributes those very same qualities of unity and togetherness to the Egyptians! In Shmos 14:10, the Torah says regarding the Egyptians’ pursuit of the Jews at the banks of the Red Sea, Ve hinei Mitzraim nose’ah acharehem with the singular voice nose’ah, rather than the plural nos’im. There, too, Rashi states, citing the Midrash, that the Egyptian people were united, but in a slightly different way: b’lev echad k’ish echad, with one heart, as one person.
That the Egyptians and the Jews were equally unified is in itself remarkable. But even more puzzling, why does Rashi feel the need to flip the two phrases, so that the Jewish people are k’ish echad b’lev echad, like one person with one heart, and the Egyptians are b’lev echad k’ish echad, with one heart like one person? What qualitative difference in the two nations’ respective unity are Rashi and the Midrash attempting to highlight?
Perhaps the Midrash provides a prescription for what true Jewish unity is all about. While the Egyptians may have achieved unity at the same level as the Jews encamping around Har Sinai, their unity began with their lev echad, their unity of purpose, their singular objective. Only as a result of that were they able to be k’ish echad, unified as one. The Jews, on the other hand, possess an intrinsic unity which transcends a unity of purpose. They are, irrespective of any ideological differences, k’ish echad. At Har Sinai, the Jews also happen to have been b’lev echad, but Jewish unity is not contingent on ideological harmony or unity of purpose. Each and every Jew possesses an unbreakable bond with their fellow Jew, k’ish echad, regardless of how differently they think or feel.
It’s interesting to note that Shavuot comes at the culmination of the period of Sefirat Haomer, where we mourn the tragic loss of the students of Rabbi Akiva, who perished because of a lack of respect and honor for one another. As staunch disciples of the great Rabbi Akiva, these were students who undoubtedly were b’lev echad, singularly committed to the mission of learning and spreading the teachings of their revered rebbe. What they perhaps lacked was the k’ish echad, the sense of brotherhood and togetherness which allows us to overcome what are, in the grand scheme of things, petty differences. A failure to acknowledge the significance and importance of Jewish unity results, unfortunately, in a deficiency in and a lack of appreciation of true kedushas Yisrael.
In this light, Rav Kook noted the interesting formulation of our birchos haTorah which we recite each and every morning and upon being called to the Torah. We begin by saying asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim, which praises Hashem for choosing the Jewish nation as his chosen nation, and only then do we finish with v’nasan lanu es Toraso, thanking Hashem for giving us the Torah. At first glance, it should be reversed; doesn’t our chosen status flow from the simple fact that we are the nation who accepted Hashem’s Torah? Why not mention the Torah first and only then refer to the Jews’ status as the chosen nation? Rav Kook answers that not only was national unity a pre-requisite for the giving of the Torah, but that that unity exists as an intrinsic quality of the Jewish nation, k’ish echad, separate and apart from their b’lev echad, their belief in and pursuit of a Torah way of life.
May this Shavuos serve as a catalyst to answer the call of k’ish echad b’lev echad, of not letting that which divides us trump that which unites us, so that we may accept the Torah anew in all its glory, the way the Jews did at Maamad har Sinai.
Rabbi Block is the pulpit rabbi at Kesher in Tenafly, a misumach of REITS, and a Talmud teacher at SAR in Riverdale.
By Rabbi Akiva Block