Nationhood is one of the fundamental principles of our Jewish identity, but what does it mean to be a part of Am Yisrael (the Jewish nation)? Looking beyond “Jewish geography” and our strong communities, how do we understand our interdependent connectivity? In Parshat Yisro, we witness a discreet yet powerful mention of Bnei Yisrael coming together as a unified am (nation).
After Hashem freed them from their grueling years of slavery under the Egyptians, Bnei Yisrael ventures into the wilderness. The pasuk says, “Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. And Israel encamped there opposite of the mountain” (Shemos 19:2). Rashi notes that, from the Hebrew of the pasuk, the word “encamped” switches form from referring to multiple people to an individual; he explains that this encampment near Har Sinai was unique in that Bnei Yisrael was “one man and with one heart,” and they did not settle in dissension.
Rabbi David Aaron often shares a powerful analogy to imagine the relationship between Jews. Every Jew is like a single, forest-green leaf, sharing a chocolate-brown twig branch with other leaves, and that twig is shared between branches that are offshoots of other, larger branches. Essentially, their connecting source is at the trunk and its roots, giving individual leaves an ultimate point of connection. We are those leaves, and Hashem is our ultimate Source, the Source of our selves.
Rav Aaron explains from the deeper teachings of the Kabbalah that when we recognize and embody our inherent oneness, the Shechina (Divine Presence) will rest upon us; the divine immanence of the Shechina is expressed through humanity.
If the Shechina can only rest upon us when we internalize and express our collective identity as Am Yisrael, then the rejection and denial of such a reality banish the Shechina from our midst.
Rav Kook elaborates on such an idea from Yechezkel; in the context of Bnei Yisrael’s galut (exile) from Eretz Yisrael, the pasuk says, “I am in the depths of exile” (1:1). Rav Kook explains, “This refers to the inner, essential ‘I’– whether individual or collective…” The Shechina was in the depths of exile, banished from dwelling amongst Bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael because they forgot their collective identity, the inherent oneness we all share.
When Bnei Yisrael encamped opposite from Har Sinai, as the pasuk describes, they encamped as a single unit, every individual unifying under the umbrella of Am Yisrael. Moshe then went up to Hashem to receive the Torah for Bnei Yisrael, so we could access the Book of our people.
These ideas surrounding Jewish unity and nationhood are powerful and inspiring, but how do we feel the loving relationship we share with our fellow Jews and feel Hashem’s illuminating immanence in this world? Within Am Yisrael, we must always share our loving presence with one another, and then we can become receptive to Hashem’s loving presence. To connect or not to connect; that is the question.