Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Yitro 5757
February 1, 1997 24 Shvat 5757
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The permanent exhibition of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv begins with a replica of the relief from the Arch of Titus depicting Jewish prisoners bearing Temple artifacts (a large seven-branched menorah, for example) into exile. Nearby a piece of signage unfurls the Museum's conception of Jewish history: "This is the story of a people which was scattered over all the world and yet remained a single family; a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet out of ruins, rose to new life." These stirring words attest to an unbroken national will to live. Exile did not end Jewish history nor fragment Jewish unity. Shared consciousness made up for the lack of proximity.
This same lofty affirmation of Jewish unity is voiced in the synagogue every time we recite the prayer for the advent of a new month, as we do this Shabbat for Adar One (this being a leap year). Essentially, the prayer asks God to favor us individually and nationally during the coming month. The first and longer section contains a list of petitions for our personal well-being, both physical and spiritual; the second, a short plea for national redemption.
It is the emphatic closure of the second section which echoes the unshaken faith in Jewish unity asserted by the Diaspora Museum: "May the One who wrought miracles for our ancestors, taking them from slavery to freedom, soon redeem us, gathering our dispersed kin from the four corners of the earth. For all Israel is one fellowship." In other words, our separation and dispersion have failed to erode or fracture the shared identity of the Jewish people. Liturgically, the congregation breaks into song with the last three words, "Haverim kol yisrael," because staying together against such odds is a matter of pride, exaltation and thankfulness.
In truth, however, these two declarations about Jewish unity, one secular in origin, the other religious, are little more than a pious assumption. The reality of Jewish existence is less uplifting. An early midrash on our parasha betrays a darker truth. As so often, a light linguistic rub in the text of the Torah prompts a far-reaching interpretive comment. Three months after fleeing Egypt, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai: "Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain (Exodus 19:2)." Lost in the translation is the fact that though the verb "encamped" appears twice in this verse, the first time it is plural in form while the second singular (even though the subject remains the same). The midrash, as paraphrased by Rashi, notes the sudden shift from plural to singular and throws the following bombshell: "The singular verb form suggests that the entire nation encamped at Sinai like one man with one heart. All the many other encampments of Israel in the wilderness, however, were marked by complaining and controversy."
Hence, unity is not the normal state of affairs for the people of Israel. Indeed, it is an experience about as rare as the revelation at Sinai. Gathered to receive their divine mandate, the culmination of the exodus ordeal, the Israelites attain a moment of complete harmony and concord, among themselves, with Moses and with God. The singular verb is not a slip by a careless scribe, but the overt indicator of an inner transformation. Authored not long after three futile Jewish uprisings against Roman rule in the years 66, 115 and 132, this melancholy midrash hints at the pervasive inner divisions of Jewish society in Palestine during the turbulent three centuries from the Maccabees to Bar Kochba.
But the midrash also accords with the biblical narrative. Neither divine miracles without number nor Mosaic leadership are enough to impose a semblance of lasting unity on Pharaoh's former slaves. The pattern of interminable grousing is established early and persists. Although the Torah insists that the miraculous deliverance at the Sea of Reeds had imbued the people with a deep faith in both God and Moses (Exodus 14:31), how quickly did they revert to their habit of rejecting Moses's leadership at every instance of hardship! The Song at the Sea is followed by three quick instances of bitter disgruntlement.
Against this fractious background, the revelation at Sinai is, as the midrash sensed, a singular exception, embraced with alacrity and unanimity. In the public ceremony ratifying the covenant, the people obligate themselves with one indivisible voice: "All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do (Exodus 24:7)." But again, as subsequent episodes like the Golden Calf attest, the upsurge of faith and unity is short-lived. Later, civil war would often mar the period of the Judges and the First Temple.
Yet surely the covenant, which rendered Israel a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, implied the ideal of national unity. At minha on Shabbat in the amidah, we declare resonantly: "You are One, Your name is One and who is like Your people Israel, one throughout the world?" The threefold repetition of the word "one" underscores what God and Israel share in common. The unity and uniqueness of each enhances and reinforces the other. A fractured Israel brings no glory to God. Nor does a "saving remnant." The world is cluttered with "saving remnants," the fossil remains of once- vibrant religious or national communities. There is no chosenness without unity.
And the key to unity, for the Rabbis, is a healthy respect for diversity. A remarkable midrash depicts sages gathered in disputatious study of Torah with little consensus on any issue. Nevertheless, the midrash confidently asserts that the panoply of opinions derive from God, because the Torah states: "God spoke all these words (Exodus 20:1)," with the emphasis on "all." God's revelation abounds with a multiplicity of meanings. The wisdom of this midrash is to define membership in the Jewish people not creedally or behaviorally but in terms of a relationship. As long as one is engaged in the study of Torah, one is a member of God's chosen people.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,