Yitro: One Nation, One Heart
When Israel’s legendary Prime Minister Menachem Begin passed away in 1992, Israelis were shocked to find out Begin did not want to be buried in Mt. Herzl, where other Israeli presidents and prime ministers were buried. Begin, instead, wanted to be buried in Mt. Olives near the graves of two young men murdered by the British when they were in their 20s. The two young men came from two very different backgrounds yet shared the same fate. The two were Moshe Barazani and Meir Feinstein.
Moshe Barazani was born in Baghdad, Iraq, to a large Baghdadi rabbinic family and was a member of the Lehi underground. He was caught after blowing up a British railway and was sentenced to death. Meir Feinstein was born in Jerusalem to a Lithuanian Jewish family from the city of Brisk, attended Jerusalem’s Etz Chaim Cheder school, became an orphan at a young age, joined the British army fighting in WWII, and became an orphan at a young age.
He, too, was arrested after attempting to blow up the British railway and was later sentenced to death. Feinstein and Barazani ended up sharing a cell in Jerusalem’s fearsome Russian Compound prison and awaiting their death penalty together.
The British asked Rabbi Aryeh Levin if he would minister to the two in their last moments, and he said he could not. He did not believe they needed any confession as they had never sinned. It is also possible his heart could not bring him to see his very own student Meir Feinstein being put to death.
Instead, Rabbi Jacob Goldman of the Jewish Agency would go to speak to the two. He hugged them, cried with them, said the Shema with them, and assured them he would be there at midnight when the British planned to put them to death.
Rabbi Goldman did not know that the two had a Samson styled “let my soul die with the Philistines” plan and that they had explosives with which they would kill themselves and the British presence at the execution.
Now that Rabbi Goldman insisted on being present at their execution, they were afraid to hurt the rabbi–but they could not tell him about their plans either.
As the rabbi left, the two took the grande they had, placed it between their hearts, and while embraced together with a grenade between their hearts, a large explosion shuttered Jerusalem. They died with their hearts together. Begin used this story often to speak of the united heart of the Jewish people, united for a good cause. Feinstein, an Ashkenazi from Brisk, and Barazani, an Iraqi from Baghdad, united to fight for a Jewish homeland.
In this week’s Parsha, we are told about how the Jews camped in front of Mt. Sinai,
“and Israel encamped there. “Rashi comments on the fact that the words used to describe this event are written in the singular tense: “as one man with one heart, but all the other encampments were [divided]” for the Jews to be able to receive the Torah, we had to all camp out with a united heart.
Yet inspiring though this may be, we have seen this same term used in a very different way not too long ago. When speaking of the Egyptians chasing the Jewish people towards the Red Sea, the Torah says: “the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! The Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.”
In a similar style to what we see here regarding Jews at Har Sinai, Rashi states: “with one heart, one man.” Was the unique and inspiring unity the Jewish people felt at the foot of Mt. Sinai really the same kind of unity the bloodthirsty Egyptians were feeling even as they were chasing the Israelites back, trying to capture us back into the bond of slavery?
Rabbi Avrohom Bornsztain of Sochachov, one of the greatest rabbis in Poland in the late 1800s, explains the difference between Israel’s unity and Egypt’s unity. When Egypt comes together, we are told it was “in one heart, like one man.” Nothing could bring the Egyptians together other than their greed, wanting to enslave the Jews and violent pursuit of the Jewish people. The shared interest led to their unity. They were “In one heart” and only then “like one man.”
The Israelites, on the other hand, were just the opposite. We were “like one man, with one body.” The Jewish people, regardless of ideology, are one body. It is that unity that brings us together and joins us also into one heart. Like Moshe Barazani and Meir Feinstein, regardless of our ideology or communal affiliation, we must remember we are all in one heart.
When too many people suggest we must only help Jews who think like us, look like us, or live with us, we must remember: we are one people, and only then one heart. We must be there for every Jew at all times, and only then will we receive the full blessings of receiving the Torah.