Mordechai Silverstein

It’s Not So Terrible to Disagree

When Moshe was about to relinquish his leadership over the children of Israel, he addressed God in a most unusual way: “Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community.'” (Num. 27:15-16) Nowhere else is God called “Source of the breath of all flesh (אלוקי כל הרוחות)”.

The sages were wont to find special significance when the Torah employed idiosyncratic language. So, if God is known as the “Source of the breaths of all flesh”, what could this possibly come to teach? In one interpretation, we learn from it a special blessing. When a person sees a gathering of 600,000 Jews, symbolically the number of Jews standing at Sinai, one recites the following blessing – ברוך אתה ה’…חכם הרזים – Blessed are You, Lord our God, who knows all secrets. (See Bemidbar Rabah 21:2). How do we derive this blessing from the verse? The “Source of the breaths of all flesh” is understood to mean “the One who knows the ideas of all people. We give praise to God because He has the capacity to know the thoughts of every person. The sages describe this divine quality very deftly: “Just as no two faces are alike, so, too, no two people’s ideas are alike.” (See Rashi) This blessing acknowledges that God recognizes the individuality and uniqueness of each and every person.

This blessing then recognizes diversity. Jews come in different shapes, sizes and colors, but more than anything else, Jews are known for their diversity of opinions. Why would the sages promote the idea of diversity as a blessing? Perhaps to remind us that diversity does not always bring with it the unity necessary for maintaining a people. We need to be assured that we can remain united even when people see things differently.

So, then, what is Moshe asking of God? Rashi put it this way: “Master of the Universe: “You, God, know what everybody thinks, even though no two people think alike; I want you to appoint a leader who will also be able to tolerate the opinions of others!”!

There is something exciting in this message. God sees value in human uniqueness and in difference of opinion. Why would the sages offer up such a message? This radical idea is quintessentially Jewish. Jewish sacred literature, whether it be the Tanakh, the Talmud, the interpretation of the Biblical text known as midrash or even the halacha – Jewish law, is renowned for debate and argument. Monolithic thinking is simply not an authentic element of the Jewish tradition. Why? Perhaps it is because vigorous discussion better reflects the search for truth than dogmatic thinking. The sages were most certainly aware of this. We, however, sometimes require a reminder.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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