When the Jewish people camped at Sinai, the Torah tells us that they were united. Rather than saying that they camped at Mount Sinai, the Torah says, he camped at Mount Sinai. This draws the attention of Rashi, the eleventh century biblical commentator, who observes, “As one people with one heart.”
We once had opportunity to point out that this is not the first time that Rashi speaks of a single people with a single heart. Just last week we read about the Egyptians chasing the Jewish people to the Red Sea. There we read that the Jews looked up and saw Egypt chasing them. The Torah doesn’t say that Egyptians were chasing them, rather that Egypt, in the singular, chased them.
Once again, this draws Rashi’s attention, who makes a similar observation. But this time he reverses his order. He says that Egypt was, “with one heart as one people.” With Rashi, every detail is instructive. He did not reverse the order because he was confused. He reversed the order to make a point.
We once explained that Rashi wanted to distinguish between inherent unity and causal unity. If inherently disparate parties make common cause, their unity will last only as long as their interests are aligned. If the parties are inherently united, their unity will outlast the commonality of their interests.
Hence the Egyptians who were united by their cause are described as a nation with one heart as one people. They are a single people because at that time they were one of one heart. This is clearly indicated by the fact that when the plagues took their toll on Egypt, their unity disintegrated, and many Egyptians argued with Pharaoh to release the Jews. It was only at the Red Sea when they wanted to force the Jews back to Egypt that they made common cause. Their unity was the result of their cause.
However, when describing Jewish unity, Rashi says they are one people with one heart. They are not united because they are in agreement. They are inherently a single people. Jews are often in disagreement, but they are not inherently fragmented. Thus, when they agree, it is reflection of their inherent unity.
A Contemporary Lesson
This lesson has never been more cogent than it is today. We live in a generation of Cancel Culture. Our society is quick to discredit people for a single comment they may have made many years earlier. There is not a single person in the world who hasn’t said something he or she would later regret. If we judged ourselves by every single comment we made, we would be canceled too.
Yet those who cancel others never realize this about themselves. They simply rush to accuse, judge, and condemn. It has created terrible rifts in society. It has reached a point that you can’t disagree with anyone safely. The moment you disagree, you can get canceled for being on the wrong side of the aisle. And it works both ways. The Right demeans the Left and the Left demeans the Right.
This demonstrates that our unity is not inherent. If we are ever united, it is only a unity of cause. If it were inherent, we would be able to disagree without dehumanizing each other. It is time to wake up and realize the destruction we have wrought. We need to stop dehumanizing others and share our planet in peace.
Nowhere is this divide more pronounced than with respect to COVID. Society is torn at the seams on issue. And because both sides are driven by fear—life’s greatest motivator—each side is prepared to tear the other to shreds.
You walk into any synagogue today and you will hear only one opinion. Why? Because whoever speaks loudest silences and intimidates those who disagree with them. As a result, you don’t have ordinary conversation and disagreement as was once the case. Instead, you have marked splits within the community. This synagogue refuses to mask and is opposed to vaccinating and that synagogue won’t allow anyone in if they haven’t vaccinated.
Each synagogue demeans and dismisses the other. It gets much worse than that. Not only does each mock the other, we no longer have empathy for each other. If a family is ejected from a synagogue because they haven’t vaccinated, no one reaches out to convey their regret. It is assumed they deserve it for choosing not to vaccinate. In fact, goes this line of thought, let’s see how many more places we can bar them from. Can we pressure their employers to fire them? Can we ensure that they are barred from public transportation and international travel?
Countries that pass such laws do so out of fear. But where is their empathy for those they bar? Their answer is that if they want to rejoin, all they need to do is vaccinate. But they must have a reason for making the choice they did. Even if you disagree with that reason, they are still human. You can still feel for them. Sadly, it is rare that anyone reaches across the aisle to express compassion and empathy.
It works both ways. People who take COVID seriously and respect the need for lockdowns and social distancing, are mocked and dismissed by those who don’t agree with it. I have heard people characterize all those who vaccinated as sheep. They follow their leader like a herd of sheep and don’t know how to think for themselves.
Have we really reached such a low? Do we really believe that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is not thinking for themselves? This might make sense for a people who are united by cause, but among Jews, who are inherently united, this makes no sense. It is time for us to close ranks and embrace with love those who don’t think as we do. We can disagree with respect, and we can love across the aisle with compassion.
We are not one people because we have one heart—because we are on the same page. We have one heart because we are one people. We don’t need to be on the same page to be the same people.
How has it come to this? How have we fallen so low? We are talking about decent people who would never view themselves as evil or cruel. So why do so many decent Jews behave so cruelly?
The answer is that when we disguise cruelty as righteousness, there is no stopgap to slow our fall. There is nothing to tell us that we have gone too far. On the contrary, we keep telling ourselves that we are not righteous enough, and we need to do more.
When we identify cruelty for what it is, we lose the stomach for it rather quickly because we are not inherently cruel. It is time for us to identify our cruelty and stop wrapping it in holy bunting. It is time for us to return to being a single people.
One people with one heart.