In last week’s Torah reading, we read about our ancestors’ attitudes on the shores of the Sea as the Egyptian army approached and trapped them by the waters of the Yam Suf. Our commentaries identified four different groups which emerged during this crisis. The reactions went from belligerence to resignation. But this week, according to the very same commentaries a totally different picture emerges, and that phenomenon is worthy of our attention and examination.
Since the Miracle at the Sea, the Jews have been through a lot. During the five weeks it took to trek from the Sea to the foot of Mt. Sinai, they experienced thirst, hunger and war. It should come as no surprise that these recently emancipated slaves had issues.
Chapter 18, at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, describes people lining up from morning til night to seek Moshe’s help and advice. We’re not told the exact nature of the issues, but it is to be expected that they had many problems stemming from all the upheavals in their lives. I don’t envy Moshe’s situation, but Yitro, his father in law, helped him to ease the burden.
That brings us to Chapter 19. This section describes the circumstances preceding the famous Epiphany at Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were revealed to B’nei Yisrael. And the resilience and strength of the Jews is disclosed almost immediately: Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain (Shmot 19:2).
The Midrash then does its thing. And what is the Thing the Midrash does? It notices anomalies in the language of the text and remarks on the significance of these unexpected twists in the wording. In our case, the verse begins with the encampment of Jewish people described in the plural (VAYACHANU), and, then, abruptly, switches to the singular (VAYACHAN).
Why? Along comes the Midrash: AND THERE ISRAEL ENCAMPED as one man and with one mind — but all their other encampments were made in a murmuring spirit and in a spirit of dissension (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2:10).
We have both a notable complement and then a bit of an insult. However, even the insult has its point. Travel in the MIDBAR was exceedingly difficult. Almost all the complaints we are aware of, especially in the book of Bamidbar, are directly connected to travel. The acts of encamping and decamping were arduous, and took their toll on B’nei Yisrael, from the youngest to the oldest.
But here in the shadow on Mt. Sinai the situation is different. There is a state of expectancy and, almost superhuman, unity. This unity was so palpable and significant that it is reiterated: All those assembled answered as one (YACHDAV), saying, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Eternal (verse 8).
This is, of course, remarkable based on the circumstances of the journey, but perhaps even more noteworthy because of our people’s track record. As the Aznayim L’Torah remarks:
According to the normal attitude and behavior of our nation, If Reuvain says that it’s ‘night’, Shimon will say that it’s day, and Levi will say that it’s BEIN HASHAMOSHOT (twilight, neither day nor night). There at the foot of Mt Sinai a miracle happened, and the entire nation responded together, for everyone chimed in, before their friends could, ‘Everything that God said we will do!’ And, God forbid anyone would say the opposite.
Before anyone starts to criticize the normative behavior of our people as being overly argumentative, I must point out the importance of argumentation in arriving at the truth. Rav Jonathan Sacks Z”L pointed out:
What is striking about Judaism is that argument and the hearing of contrary views is the essence of the religious life. Moses argues with God. That is one of the most striking things about him. He argues with Him on their first encounter at the burning bush…Equally striking is the fact that the Sages continued the tradition and gave it a name: argument for the sake of heaven, defined as debate for the sake of truth as opposed to victory. The result is that Judaism is, perhaps uniquely, a civilisation all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments…In Judaism there is something holy about argument…The pursuit of truth and justice require the freedom to disagree. The Netziv argued that it was the prohibition of disagreement that was the sin of the builders of Babel…When you learn to listen to views different from your own, realizing that they are not threatening but enlarging, then you have discovered the life-changing idea of argument for the sake of heaven.
Arguing respectfully and honestly is the very soul of Rabbinic literature. Never think of the BEIT MEDRASH (study hall) as a debating society. The rigorous behavior must be understood to be a sincere search for truth. The most arduous of debates must always end in heartfelt affection for each other.
From this perspective the reaction of the Jews at Har Sinai is even more momentous. As the Kedushat Levi points out:
Another aspect of this verse is that Moses in reflecting on the people’s response, realized that this response must have been forthcoming as the result of Divine inspiration as there are simply no normal people who would write such a “blank check”, not knowing the amount that would be filled in.
But this attitude was imperative, because all the future generations of debate can only arrive at the desired results if all the debaters begin from the same starting point. Without that agreed upon foundation there would never be consensus. All the arguments in the Mishne, Gemara, and, later, the Shulchan Aruch arrive at satisfactory conclusions because every participant starts from the unanimous acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.
Even Moshe noticed this wonderment. Since Moshe clearly understood God’s omniscience, why would he ‘bring back the people’s worlds to the Eternal’? Why bother? God knew. The Ohr Hachaim notes that, ‘Moshe used the opportunity to praise the Jewish people by pointing out their many virtues.’
We must continue to remain aware of that moment of unanimity. It is the basis for all that we cherish in our Torah and behavior. So, please, next time you disagree with a friend about a Torah issue, fight hard for your position, then embrace the other in recognition of the most important truth: It’s all based on the eternal Truth of the Torah received at Sinai.