Shavuot: The Power of Unity

From Cheesecake to special Challah, meat to dairy, sweet to savory, the differing customs of the holiday of Shavuot vary greatly. Ashkenazic custom is to have more dairy—and often sweet—food. Sephardic custom is more inclined to meat foods during this time, Tunisian Jews have the custom to eat Matzah, Libyan Jews eat ladder-like cookies remembering the ascent to Sinai, Moroccan Jews eat honey resembling the sweetness of the Torah, Persian Jews eat fruit, and so on with many more customs. The beauty of our traditions is best expressed through the multitude of diverse customs, each representing another side of the holiday. And yet, one of the beauties of Sinai was the Jewish people’s ability to stand united. When is unity a blessing and when must we embrace our diversity?

The Torah says: (Shemot 19:1-2) “In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), the greatest medieval commentator from Troyes, France, notes a discrepancy in the verse. When speaking of the arrival at the dessert of Sinai, the Torah speaks in plural “Vayavo’uVayachanu”, yet when the Torah is speaking about the encampment of the Jews around Har Sinai it speaks in singular terms, “vayichan”, and Israel encamped itself around the mountain.

Rashi, noticing this difference, explains it with a term that has since been coined for generations to be ”ke’ish echad be’elev echad”, the Jews were like one person, with one heart.” A foundational element of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai was the Jewish people being united.

The Midrash highlights the power of unity with a powerful analogy. “God has created the heavens on the earth, this is like a king who built his palace on several rafts. As long as the rafts are connected the palace can stand, so too, it is as if God’s throne is standing on all of the Jewish people, as long as they stand together the throne can stand as well.” ( Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, 15).  This powerful statement introduces an unequivocal theological imperative; for God’s presence to be complete in this world, we must all stand united.

Reiterating this very point, the Midrash in Deuteronomy (18), makes the following radical statement:” as long as Israel stand united in one group, even if there is idol worship among them, they will not be inflicted with judgment, and so too you find that the Jewish people will not be redeemed until they are united as one group.”(Tanchuma to Deuteronomy, Parshat Nitzavim, 1).

Why is a religion which is so much about individual responsibility, individual integrity, and personal commitment, so centered with communal unity? How did unity become such an integral part of who we are?

Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1512-1609), explains[1] that a nation coming to represent the unity of God—monotheism—must make sure that they too are united. Standing divided strongly diminishes the power of the message of one God. If God is one, we must also be united. Unity does not need to mean conformity or being single-minded. What it does mean is that we must dwell in harmony and unity with each other.

Rabbi Avraham Borenstein, the Sochatchover Rebbe (1838-1910) also known as the Avnei Nezer,  points out that a very similar term to “Ke’ish Echad Be’lev Echad”,  appears earlier in the book of Shemot (14:10), yet with a slight difference. Shortly after the Exodus, when the Egyptians go to chase the Jews, Rashi comments they did that “Be’lev Echad, Ke’ish echad”. The Avnei Nezer explains that the Jewish people are naturally one unit. The bond keeping us all together is so naturally strong, and powerful. Before we even unite around any idea, we are naturally bound together. This is why when we stood at Sinai, we did so “Ke’ish Echad”, like one man—first we are one body—and then “be’lev echad” also united at heart.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, did not have much bringing them together. Short of their hate for the Jews, there was not much binding them together. This is why when it comes to the Egyptian, Rashi reverses the order and writes:”Belev Echad, Ke’Ish Echad”.

The Jewish people are bound together in unity. For us to receive the Torah, we must make sure we stand united. When we stand together there is nothing that can stop us. When we are divided, there is nothing we can achieve. May the holiday of Shavuot being with it the blessings of unity, leading us to a full and complete Kabalat Hatorah.

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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