When asked what is the biggest problem the Jewish people face today, many would probably answer: שנאת חנם – baseless hatred. Throughout our long history we have fallen victim to it time and again; turning on Jews from different ideological camps than ourselves and bitterly and viciously attacking them, verbally and at times even physically. The only thing that seems to enable Jews of different camps to unite en masse is when tragedy strikes our people. We saw an epidemic of baseless hatred ravage the State of Israel in the months leading up to October 7th, as Israeli society divided itself deeply over the debate of judicial reform – and Jews around the world were divided over the issue too. It makes you wonder: Will we ever succeed in overcoming our differences and uniting as a people without the external motivation of antisemitism or national tragedies?
A couple of months ago, I read in a WhatsApp group an idea that relates to this issue. An oft quoted lesson by our Biblical commentators (famously by Nachmanides in the 13th century CE) is that: “מעשה אבות םימן לבנים” – “The actions of the forefathers are a sign for the children”. This means that the actions of the early characters in Jewish history as described in the Chumash create patterns which are followed by successive generations of Jews centuries and millennia later.
In parshat Vayishlach, when our forefather Yaakov returns to Israel with his family following his long stay with his scheming uncle Laban, his daughter Dinah is kidnapped and raped by Prince Shechem. Her brothers Shimon and Levi retaliate by killing everyone in the city of Shechem, which provokes the neighboring Canaanite city-states to join forces against Yaakov’s family in battle. For a time, Yaakov’s sons are busy subduing the present Canaanite threat to their family – which is why we hear no record of quarrel between the tribes at this time, because the tribes are united while dealing with this outside threat.
The following parshah, Vayeishev, begins with the words “וישב יעקב בארץ כנען” – “And Yaakov settled in the Land of Canaan” [Bereishit, 37:1]. The family finally achieve some respite from fighting off their neighbors and get the chance to settle down and live in peace. And what begins in the very next verse? The saga of Yosef, the ‘favorite child’, of whom his brothers become jealous, then when Yosef relates his dreams to them, they plot to kill him and end up selling him into slavery in Egypt. The internecine hatred between the brothers starts precisely when the outside threat that had united them ceases. The moment they are left alone, they begin fighting with each other.
This pattern repeats itself too many times throughout our history – we are united against external threats, but inevitably quarrel among ourselves during times of peace. Sometimes we are not even united against outside threats – when the Roman armies were besieging Jerusalem in the year 68 CE, the city’s inhabitants were divided so deeply into factions, each one convinced that they were right and everyone else was wrong about the way to fight the war, that we destroyed ourselves from within without the Romans having to do anything. Only when the Roman armies breached the city walls on 17th Tammuz did the different factions finally unite as one to battle them – but that proved too late for the Second Temple.
I’m not sure how much better we’re doing today. Municipal elections are coming up in Israel, and while walking in Jerusalem last week I saw a campaign banner that made me groan inwardly. The banner displayed a picture of the candidate next to the words “ירושלים ישראלית או חרדית”. Here it was again, the battle between different tribes, with one tribe trying to play on the fears of the people to win votes, making out that the only way to avoid a Charedi ‘takeover’ of Jerusalem is to strengthen the secular Israeli character of the city. Different tribes competing in a zero-sum game, instead of uniting above our differences.
I spent several weeks thinking despondently about our collective failure to break out of this pattern, and the tragedies, ancient and recent, this has brought on us. But when thinking about this week’s parsha, Yitro, I was struck by a thought that made me consider this idea in an entirely new way.
In his famous essay Kol Dodei Dofek, Rav Joseph Solovetchik describes how there are two covenants that bind Am Yisrael: The covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate is the common history shared by all Jews – we became a people in Egypt, forged together by common suffering and slavery. The covenant of destiny, on the other hand, was formed when our ancestors stood around Mount Sinai and declared, “נעשה ונשמע”, “we will do and we will listen”, committing themselves and their descendants to becoming a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש – the nation who would act as God’s emissaries on Earth. The covenant of fate is formed by what others do to us; the covenant of destiny is formed by who we ourselves choose to become.
And when we arrived at Mount Sinai and encamped opposite the mountain [Shemot 19:2], Rashi comments that we were “כאיש אחד בלב אחד” – “as one man with one heart”. Opposite the mountain, which represents our commitment to God and becoming his people, we became completely unified.
I would like to tie this all together in a personal interpretation. Rashi does not mention that our people experienced this kind of complete unity at any stage during our exodus from Egypt, nor at any point on the subsequent journey until now. The covenant of fate ultimately is not enough to completely unite us as a people. That does not mean it counts for nothing – there are Jews alive today who possibly wouldn’t identify as Jews at all if not for antisemitism, which is their main method of identification with the Jewish people. While this certainly falls far below the ideal – for the Jewish people are not meant to be seen as an object with a problem, but rather a subject with desires – at least through the covenant of fate they identify as Jews.
At the end of the day though, antisemitism, tragedies that befall our people, are not sufficient to unite us in an enduring manner, for when they pass, we fall back into fighting each other.
But it is possible to come together through the covenant of destiny. What unites our people at the most essential level is our covenant with God. This will mean different things to many people. Our sages tell us that Moshe deliberately placed every Jew at a different position around Mount Sinai so that each one would experience the revelation in a unique way. And yet despite this, or even because of this, they stood “כאיש אחד בלב אחד”.
At the time Yaakov’s sons begin fighting each other, we do not yet have the b’rit Sinai – the covenant of destiny. We can break this destructive pattern by focusing on our shared commitment to becoming an אור לגויים – a light unto the nations – and choosing to emphasize what unites us, not what divides us.