Parashat Yitro contains one of the most dramatic scenes of the entire Torah, and possibly the pivotal moment of all of Jewish History – it is the Torah portion which relates our primary encounter with the divine. The paradigmatic moment of revelation retold in this parasha serves as the classic example of what it means to have God’s will revealed to us on the collective level.
Whatever Reform theology or modern scholarship might tell us about the authorship of the Torah, the tradition views the gathering at Sinai as the defining moment of Divine Revelation. This is it! This is the moment that we become God’s chosen (for those who still believe in that)! This is the moment that Moses stands face to face with the Eternal, and we in turn share in that heavenly intimacy. This is THE moment of truth. This is the moment when the Jewish people are brought together – our national character is defined through this gathering – this meeting with each other and the divine. This is the beginning of our covenant. Our covenant with the divine and with each other. Or is it?
A minute detail of questionable Hebrew grammar may point to a different rendering of this dramatic moment. At the beginning of Chapter 19 in the book of Exodus, before the children of Israel arrive at Mt Sinai – before this miraculous gathering – we read:
א בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי. ב וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר.
“In the third month, after the children of Israel had left Egypt, on that day they came to the Desert of Sinai. And they travelled from Refidim, and they came to the Desert of Sinai and they encamped in the desert; and Israel encamped opposite the mountain.”
If one was reading the English, or did not understand the Hebrew, the significance of this line would be entirely lost. It would seem a list of geographic details – part of an endless litany of the journeying of the children of Israel with which the Torah is littered. But in the original Hebrew, a deviation is obvious in the subject of the verbs used throughout these two verses. In the first verse, the subject is “the children of Israel.” In the second verse, it seems the verbs that describe the action – “they traveled”, “they came”, “they encamped” – are all in the third person plural, and then at the end of the verse, the subject changes from being “the children of Israel” to “Israel”, and the verb changes from plural to singular.
Now, I cannot pretend to be an ancient grammarian or understand the significance of each minor detail of the Torah’s use of language. But luckily I do not have to – for that, we have Rabbi Shimon Itzhaki, better known as Rashi (France, late 11th century) – the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah. Drawing on ancient midrashim, Rashi attempts to answer all the questions and queries that are brought up by the text of the torah. And what does Rashi have to say about this verse?
Commenting on the change to the singular, “ויחן שם ישראל”, Rashi says: “כאיש אחד בלב אחד, As one person with one heart.”
He goes on to point out that the previous journeys and encampments of Israel (referred to in the plural) had not been “as one person with one heart” but with murmurings and disagreements.
What does Rashi mean by this expression, “as one person with one heart”? The term has come to be used in modern day Israel as a slogan of national unity. What it expresses in its most simply understood form, is that the people were united when they encamped opposite Mt Sinai – they were already “as one person with one heart” BEFORE they received Torah. When we understand the significance of this, it becomes clear that the giving of Torah did not unite us – we were already united. Something about our shared journey – our shared experience of the ordeal of journeying, the shared fears and hopes of leaving Egypt – had brought us together. If the giving of the Torah is symbolic of our shared belief, while the exodus from Egypt is symbolic of our shared experience, this simple midrash brought by Rashi shows us that it is our shared experience – our history together as a community that unites us, before we come to have a shared view of the world. In fact, even without any basis for shared belief, we have the ability to stand together as one. This unity, which is not reliant on the shared belief brought about by the giving of Torah is called in our tradition, “Brit Goral” – the covenant of fate. While the covenant we enter into at Sinai, that of shared belief, is called “Brit Yiud” – the covenant of faith. These are not reliant on each other. We shared Brit Goral before we joined in Brit Yiud.
Yiud literally means “objective” – something to strive for. And indeed we may strive to find common belief. But as members of the people of Israel, we need not strive to find common experience – that is part of who we are.
This basic truth – of our shared experience – of our common past – of our unity of fraternity, if not of purpose, has been forgotten within Israeli society and the Jewish world today. We do not stand “as one person, with one heart”. We stand divided. History has taught us the danger of such a stance. As we approach Parashat Yitro, we are called to remember the possibility of unity despite our murmurings and disagreements – despite the fact we may not share belief, we are called to remember our shared heritage. May we realise the potential of this unity before we fall divided.
About the author:
The above formerly appeared as #101 in our Torah from Around the World series.