Beshalach: Unity and Passion – Theirs and Ours

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04 Feb 2009

Twice in the Torah do our Rabbis find demonstrations of complete unity. One is very famous, the other quite surprising. On their way to receiving the Torah, the Jews encamp against the mountain [Shemos, 19:2].

Vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar – Yisrael encamped facing towards the mountain

By using the singular and not the plural (vayachanu) formulation for encampment, the Torah expresses the special moment of unity that was achieved

K’ish echad b’leiv echad – (united) like one man with one heart.

A second instance of incredible unity surfaces in our parsha. After the craziness of the last days in Egypt, the Jews are finally leaving in triumphant style. As they approach the Sea of Reeds, Paroh senses confusion and sniffs vengeance. The tide turns and Bnei Yisrael sees the entire nation of Egypt running after them (Shemos,14:10):

V’hinei mitzrayim noseia achareihem – And behold, Egypt is traveling after them

Once again, the text uses the singular verb for travel implying singularity of purpose, hinting to the Rabbinic sentiment that the Egyptians were

B’leiv echad k’ish echad– with one heart like one man

So then it seems that this incredible unity isn’t just a Jewish thing, nor such a holy thing – a rather depressing thought for somewhat brought up with the special notion of Jewish unity.

But notice the nuanced difference in the midrashic formulation. For the Jews it is unity of man and then heart and for the Egyptians is it the reverse. And that makes all the difference in the world!

Diverse people can unify around a goal (= unity of heart). Even if they otherwise hate each other; the objective becomes the great unifier. Batlah davar batlah ahavah – when that objective is gone however, so is the unity. Germany and Russia made strange bedfellows prior to WWII; Russia and America formed an even stranger shidduch during the war. When Mahathir Mohamad, former President of Malaysia advised the governments of all Muslim countries to bring all Muslims together (1.3 billion) to close ranks and have a common stand “if not on all issues, at least on … Palestine (6 million Jews)” he pragmatically echoed the notion of the leiv echad that creates the ish echad. The endeavor is about permanent interests, not permanent allies.

Jews are unified, b’etzem, in essence. Yisrael Kudsha Brich Hu V’oraisa chad hu. Atah echad .. u’mee k’amcha Yisrael goy echad. Jews, God and Torah are one. Our oneness does not always manifest itself in agreement on a particular method or objective; yet our ability to receive Torah and jointly implement its complete corpus is a reflection of an organic unity – of a massive unified neshama broken down into smaller pieces. We are first an ish echad who then were able to have the leiv echad. Since that special moment, we might fight a bit too much on the methods – but our unity cannot be broken.

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2. Paroh really wanted us back. He engaged in unconventional behavior. Right before the chase, we received a small snapshot (Shemos, 14:6):

Vaye’esor et Richbo – He [Paroh] harnessed his chariot.

Rashi cites the midrash:

By himself, shehasina’ah mikalkelet et hashurah – for hatred overcomes the protocol

The notion that passion preempts protocol is a phenomenon the Midrash finds three other times in Torah. Besides, Paroh

(vayachavosh) saddles his she-donkey en route to curse the Jews.

b. Avraham (vayachavosh) saddles his donkey enroute to perform the akeidah.

c. Yosef (vaye’esor) harnesses the chariot that will bring his father to Egypt.

There is much to consider here

1. The basic notion: When we are passionate about something, we do not stand on ceremony is critical for authentic spirituality; we must probe our inner selves and ask how much of our service is God centered and how much is ego driven? Do we hesitate to do something right when it is not glorious (shlepping, cleaning and serving). I know a simple Holy Jew who prides himself on mopping the Beis Medrash. The converse is also true. If it is wrong, then is it really glorious? Is it worth demanding the Aliyah, amud or kavod when someone else will be hurt?

2. Passion is not a determinant of truth. Paroh and Bila’am as well as many people alive today are passionate, impactful and very wrong. In our search for the Divine, what feels right may not always be.

3. Misused passion, like all gifts in the world can lead to terrible consequences. Use your gifts correctly.

4. The verbs appear in couplets. The same notion of protocol being uprooted for the sake of passion leads to divergent paths. Avraham and Yosef vs. Bila’am and Paroh. The Midrash comments:

R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Let saddling counteract saddling. Let the saddling done by our father Abraham in order to go and fulfill the will of Him at whose word the world came into existence counteract the saddling done by Bilaam in order to go and curse Israel. Let harnessing counteract harnessing. Let Joseph’s harnessing [of his chariot] to meet his father, counteract Pharaoh’s harnessing to go and pursue Israel.

It seems that the deep read of the midrash is that were it not for Avraham and Yosef’s prior excellence, then Bilaam’s and Paroh’s passions would serve to indict. To the degree that the wicked summon power and excitement to destroy, pareve and bland Judaism can not serve as an effective counterforce. At the Ba’al showdown, Eliyahu proclaims [Melachim 1, 18:21]

And Elijah came to all the people, and said, How long will you dance between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.

Sounds a bit meshugah. Would Eliyahu ever support ba’al worship Perhaps the notion is that sitting on both sides of the fence, living a straddling life of mediocre avodat Hashem leaves little room for inspiration and improvement – a fate worse than knowing you are way off.
Motionless, expressionless, kalte, antiseptic Judaism won’t light anyone’s fire. Not our children, not our spouse, not ourselves. It’s time to light up.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.