Consensus for heaven’s sake
Six days before accepting the Torah, our nation arrived at the desert of Sinai. After defining the “children of Israel” as a plural entity, the narrative suddenly switches to the singular. “Israel encamped there opposite the mountain!” (Exodus 19:2)
This sudden change cries out for explanation. Rashi, doyen of Bible commentators, does not disappoint. His terse comment to this phrase is: כאיש אחד בלב אחד. “Like one individual with one heart/mind”. (The Hebrew word לב actually has both meanings.)
I would suggest that there is one word – or more particularly one letter in the Hebrew original – which is usually ignored when explaining this astonishing comment of Rashi. That is the Hebrew preposition כ – “like”.
The nation was like a single individual of one mind. This may suggest that it was not actually entirely of a single mind.
Rashi’s comment suddenly becomes more comprehensible. After all, has anyone ever met a group of Jews who are entirely of one mind on any significant issue? The popular joke has it that where there are two Jews there are three opinions. (And of course where the two Jews are also rabbis there are more likely to be 23 opinions)
So could we imagine that all the 600,000 men plus their wives and families, every single one, on arriving at the Sinai Desert, were suddenly of one mind and heart as to the degree of their future commitment to the Torah? (Exodus 24:7). [Ultimately, under the influence of the unique theophany at the mount, their collective affirmation was indeed unhesitating, unequivocal and absolute, but that’s another, very special, story.]
After all, included among the vast throng were Korach, Datan and Aviran who, not very much later, were to attempt to stage a coup against Moses and Aaron. There was Tselofchad (according to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, Shabbat 96b) who shortly afterwards decided unilaterally to publicly violate Shabbat by gathering wood (Numb 15:32). There was the son of Shelomit bat Divri who openly blasphemed G-D (Lev. 24:11). And of course there were the 3,000 men who, not even forty days later, were to idolize a golden calf. Were all these of one mind and of one heart when proclaiming na’aseh ve-nishma?
The answer: we do not know. But bearing in mind that important letter kaph, bearing in mind that Rashi is actually telling us the nation was like one man with one heart, I would like to offer a more plausible, if somewhat radical, theory.
Even as the nation of Israel prepared to accept the Torah, there were already lurking a few potential dissenters in the ranks; but at that sublime moment as they prepared for the most exalted experience ever witnessed in history they agreed to lay their differences aside and go with the consensus.
The idea of 600,000 Bnei Yisrael all voting to make the same response is so difficult to grasp as to make it virtually impossible for us to learn a relevant lesson. However for 600,000 men of Israel, including those of a different opinion to have all agreed to go with the (we would hope overwhelming) majority under the leadership of Moses – this is something comprehensible – and also inspirational, enabling us to take away a very important message.
Our nation today is dis-unified and fractured on many fronts. There are those on the Right and those on the Left. There are religious and secular. Orthodox and non-Orthodox. We are not all going to agree. But if we truly care about our future as a nation we shall at least present, on major issues, a united front in public.
What shall that united front be?
If we examine a global demographic of what the well-known US author and thinker Dennis Prager calls “the serious Jews”, i.e. those who are engaged in Jewish life and therefore a part of world Jewry’s future, we will find that a significant majority identify with Orthodox Judaism as opposed to other forms of Judaism (Daniel J. Elazar, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs).
Of course, within Orthodoxy, as well as within non-Orthodox movements, there are several variations. But we are talking now broad brushstrokes. It’s about time we understood that the wider world has higher expectations about Jews than others. Not entirely fair, but nevertheless an inescapable reality. One of those expectations is that they expect us to speak with one voice on basic Torah and Godly values representing Judaism in the global village in which we now find ourselves. (After all, belief in the Nazarene as at very least a savior unites all Christians. Belief in Mahomet as the supreme prophet unties all Muslims. Should nothing unite us Jews? Not even fundamentals of the Torah? Not even love and brotherhood?)
In this respect, the old United Synagogue of London model under which I grew up was exemplary. For one thing, the United Synagogue was a body which espoused centrist Orthodoxy but which embraced those both to the right and to the left. Before Dr. Louis Jacobs seceded from the United Synagogue to form Masorti (Conservative), the vast majority of Anglo-Jewry came under the wide Orthodox umbrella. Certainly the voice of the United Synagogue-appointed British and Commonwealth Chief Rabbi on key moral issues affecting the wider society was always regarded as the authoritative voice of all sections of Anglo-Jewry. No doubt the minority reform and liberal congregations often disagreed with his pronouncements. But they kept their disagreement private and went with the majority consensus.
In the same way as until very recently, no Israeli politician visiting a diaspora community would ever express a view contrary to the majority consensus in the governing coalition, so a representative rabbinical spokesman of a Jewish community would impart the mainstream view on key moral and ethical global issues without fear of a self-indulgent minority, sometimes on the fringe, coming along and proclaiming “this doesn’t represent us”.
We have sadly lost all communal and national discipline. As a result, while we should be presenting as ohr la-goyim, a light to the nations, instead we are seen as lite in the eyes of these nations. What must the world think when it sees hostile hatemongering, open animosity and belligerent demonstration against the democratically-elected government in Israel and its Prime Minister among a noisy, rabble-rousing, affluent, self-appointed outvoted opposition who, Trump-like, refuse to accept the reality of the recent election? Israeli Jew fighting Israeli Jew! Sin’at chinam of the first order! Gevalt!
As we approach the festival of Shavuot, anniversary of the receiving of the Torah by a body of people who united as a single entity with a single mind and heart, the message for us is plain. While until Mashiach arrives we will never all agree on everything or perhaps even on anything ,let us present a united public front on the things that really matter. Like loving and respecting our fellow Jew.
For Heaven’s sake!