A Celebration of UnityMay 28, 2012 - 5:00 am
“And they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the desert. Israel camped there opposite the mountain” – Exodus 19:2
In the coming days, the Jewish people will celebrate the festival of Shavuot which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai exactly 50 days after the exodus from Egypt. Jews around the world will spend all night in study sessions after which, at morning prayers, we will read the climactic story of the giving of the Ten Commandments.
We’re always excited to hear the Ten Commandments, but it’s important not to overlook the verses that immediately precede them. Often times, the deepest parts of Scripture are found in the places we don’t immediately look. We’re taught to look for little clues – and we find one at the very beginning of chapter 19 of Exodus.
Why does the Torah repeat that seemingly meaningless detail about the encampment at Sinai? The very same verse tells us twice that the people camped. Well, of course they camped! Is the Torah concerned that we might think they hung out poolside at a four-star resort waiting for Moses to hand out copies of the Law? Of course not. So why the repetition?
The great 11th-century Jewish sage, Rashi, notices a telling bit of grammar in the text. When the sentence first uses the word “camped” (vayachanu), the Hebrew is plural – they camped. In the second part of the verse, “camped” (vayichan) is singular – he camped. The Jews arrived at Sinai as many – individuals, families, and tribes. But the experience at Sinai made them one – a single people with a single heart worshiping the One God.
This concept is hardly new for Americans – our nation’s motto is the Latin phrase e pluribus unum (“from many, one”). But, too often, we wait for danger or outrage to unify us. This has certainly been true throughout Jewish history and is true for most societies today. We are never more united than when we are threatened.
In this simple, easily-overlooked verse, the Torah is reminding us to find unity in joy and gratitude. Don’t wait for a negative reason to come together! Be like the Israelites at Sinai – gather together around the fountain of faith and learning and come away with a single heart for a single purpose: to do His will in the world.
In this season of receiving the Gift of the Law, may our gift be one of joyous unity. And may we share that gift with others.