An Enduring Unity

One of the most well-known Rashi comment in the Torah (quoting the Midrash) comes from the fact that the Torah describes the nation of Israel‘s encampment in the singular: “he encamped beside the mountain” (19:2). Explaining this peculiarity, Rashi tells us that the Jewish people, in preparation for the Torah, were “like one person with one heart”. Because of these feelings of unity, the verse utilizes the singular form of “he encamped”.


Many see this as high praise for the Jewish people, a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. At the same time, however, the truth is that the Jews were not the only ones to achieve this lofty level. Rashi, already last week in Beshalach, explains the singularity of “behold the Egyptians is chasing after them” (14:10) by also commenting there: ‘they were of one heart like one person’. Why, then, do we not also value their unity? Or, conversely, why do we value the unity of the Jewish people- they’re just as good as the Egyptians!?


Rav Hutner explains that the pivotal difference is how Rashi orders his statement. While both peoples represent one heart and one body, for the Jewish people, Rashi explains that they were like one person and then one heart. In contrast, Rashi explains that the Egyptians were of one heart and then one body. Rav Hutner explains that their unity was simply by happenstance. They were first interested in their own desires -with one heart. They all happen to want to get the Jews, so it happened to be that their common ground brought them together- as one body. The Jews, on the other hand, did not conditional-ize their care and concern for each other based on any particular desire. First and foremost- they were one body. Only afterwards –after they created a shared commitment- they considered their common goals.


We often mistake “successful” relationships as those which consist of similar desires: ‘We get along because we both like mystery novels’; ‘We like each other because we’re both big Yankees fans’. In actuality, successful relationships have less to do with shared desires than they do with shared commitments. Of course, that commitment is easier to make when there are shared values, but shared desires usually end up fading away- either because one’s desires change, or the desire becomes unattainable. The Jews were praised for their commitment to each other, regardless of the others’ desires. The Egyptians weren’t, because their “unity” relied on fleeting and momentary pursuits. Such unity is, in fact, not unity at all. It is simply self-interest. Unity requires a true commitment to one another, regardless of personal gains or interests. It’s only then that we can truly accept the Torah.