Lazer Gurkow

One People

Shortly after arriving at Mount Sinai, the Torah tells us that the Jewish people were like one people. The Torah says that he (rather than they) settled near the mountain. Rashi, the famous biblical commentator, pointed out the anomaly and observed that at that point they were singular; like one person with one heart.

This is not the first time that Rashi made such an observation. When the Egyptians chased down the Jews and cornered them at the Sea of Reeds, the Torah says that the Jews looked up and saw him, Egypt, traveling behind them. Rashi observed, with one heart as one person.

Did you catch the distinction between Rashi’s two statements? Speaking of the Jews at Sinai, he wrote as one person with one heart. Speaking of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, he wrote with one heart as one person. What is the meaning of this difference?

In Person, In Heart
There are two kinds of unity. The unity to which we are accustomed is the unity of cause. When we have a common cause, we unite. If we share goals, if we are of one heart, we can act in concert. Perfect strangers or even people who don’t otherwise get along can unite over a common cause.

The classic example of this was Jordan and Egypt, who had traditionally treated each other with enmity and distrust, united in 1967 over their common animus to Israel. Their common enemy united them.

Egypt was similar. Each had a unique response to the Jewish plight in Egypt. Some reveled in the Jewish suffering, others were stoic, others were cruel, and a few were compassionate. Yet, when Egypt chased the Jews in the desert, they were all united in the collective goal of reaching the Jews and bringing them home.

You could not say that they were like one person because they weren’t. The Egyptian people were not inherently united. They were a splintered fragmented people. But in this case, they had one heart—they all agreed that the Jews must be brought back to Egypt. Because they were with one heart, they became like one people. This was a most unnatural state for Egypt, but this moment was larger than any one of them and they united.

For the Jews it was different. Their unity did not stem from a common cause. It stemmed from their innate oneness. When they arrived at Sinai, their Jewish souls came to the fore, rendering them one people. Because their inherent oneness had emerged, their hearts joined too—they were unified in their collective anticipation of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This explains Rashi’s different descriptions. For the Egyptians, he wrote, one heart results in one people. For the Jews, he wrote, one people results in one heart.

The Difference
Egypt is not singled out for opprobrium when we say that they were inherently fragmented. This is true of every nation. The world is an inherently fragmented place. No two people are alike because no two minds or hearts are alike. We each have our own background, our own personality, and our own prism through which we see the world. Even siblings are not exact replicas of each other. They are each unique.

Rather than singling out the Egyptians, Rashi was singing out the Jews. The Jewish people are different. When G-d took us out of Egypt, and especially when He gave us the Torah, He gave Himself to us. By that, we mean that He took a part of Himself and He put it in us.

This is the unique Jewish soul that other nations don’t have. While every person, animal, leaf, and stone was created by one G-d, each has a unique divine spark that is tailor-made to their respective parameters. Jews have the same spark, which is why Jews are so different from each other. Put two Jews in a room, goes the old saying, and you will have three opinions. But beyond this spark, G-d endowed us with a part of Himself. A uniquely G-dly soul. When this soul shines, our innate unity comes to the fore. We become one people.

The Alliance
Think about the formation of nations. People form a national alliance because of their shared interests and causes. As neighbors who share the same piece of real estate, they form an alliance to protect it. As people who share common interests and cultural peculiarities, they form a national alliance. Their shared history and traditions cement otherwise fragmented people into a single nation. They are not innately one people. They are bound by shared interests.

This is not the case for the Jewish people. Jews live all over the world. They speak different languages, live in different countries, have different interests, and enjoy different cultures. The Jewish nation is not predicated on land since we became a nation when we were still in a desert. It isn’t predicated on culture since we remained a nation long after our cultures splintered in the diaspora. So, what keeps us together? Why are we a nation?

It is the innate connection that transcends our external differences. The Egyptians were bound by a common cause and because of this, they coalesced into one people. We don’t have common causes or interests. We are a single nation because we are inherently one people. The part of G-d that forms the core one Jew, forms the core of every Jew. We are not inherently different people brought together by shared goals, causes, history, or interests. Our interests are often different, but our core, despite our surface differences, is one. Thus, we are one people.

The Core Emerges
There are times when our inherent oneness is overshadowed by our surface differences. Under ordinary circumstances, Jews in Tasmania and Jews in Copenhagen don’t feel overly connected. But when the core Jewish soul emerges, the innate connection emerges too. When that occurs, the surface differences fall away. The Jew in Tel Aviv and the Jew in New York feel like one people.

Returning to 1967, when Israel was threatened by neighboring nations, all Jews trembled. Jews who had never been to Israel and had no friends or relatives there felt fear in their very core. When Israel was victorious, Jews throughout the world celebrated. Not because they agreed with the country or the tactics, but because they identified with as one people. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and were ecstatic as one. As one people.

At such times, the cultural differences, the fragmented interests, the countries with whom we hold citizenships, fade into the background. Our hearts swell with oneness because our innate oneness emerges. We become like one people with one heart.

This formative exciting experience was the hallmark of our ancestors’ arrival to Mount Sinai. There was a feeling that we are one people, and therefore, of one heat.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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