By Rabbi Mordechai Harris
With the conclusion of Passover, we’ve dutifully transmitted once more our people’s origin story by recounting our freedom from slavery through God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, transitioning from plagues to the crossing of the sea and recalling the onset of our wandering in the wilderness toward the ultimate moment of revelation that will be marked by the holiday of Shavuot. Embodied in the song of “Dayeinu” that we sang on Seder night is the reminder that each milestone in our people’s journey throughout the Exodus narrative is worthy of song, praise and thanks (Hallel).
However, there is one verse in Dayeinu that, on the surface, is hard to appreciate: “If God had brought us close to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us.” Of what value is there to being brought close to Mount Sinai absent a subsequent revelation? By design, we don’t even know which mountain it was. What was so special about this moment in time that it receives a grateful Dayeinu?
Rashi explains (Exodus 19:2) that when the Jewish people encamped at Mount Sinai, the Torah describes that action with language indicative of a singular actor and not a collective, which Rashi understands is indicative that we were “as one person, with one heart” (k’ish echad, b’lev echad). This unity was foundational to the receiving of the Torah but also had a value and greatness independent of the Torah and revelation.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Drashot on Pesach, Maamar 41) notes an important, if subtle, contrast between Rashi’s description of the Israelites at Mount Sinai and Rashi’s description of the Egyptians as they cornered the Israelites with their back to the water just prior to the sea’s split. There too (Exodus 14:10), the biblical text utilizes singular language to describe the Egyptians, who were “with one heart, as one person” (b’lev echad, k’ish echad).
In the Exodus narrative, the Egyptians were also unified as a people, but, as Rav Hutner explains, the Egyptians’ unity was first and foremost due to prior agreement on a cause (power, the enslavement of the Israelites, etc.) and that agreement of purpose is what served as the foundation of their unity. When their agreement on purpose dissipated, their identity as a singular people also disappeared, which is why Egyptian society was set back so dramatically following the Exodus.
By contrast, Jewish unity is different. It’s founded first and foremost through our shared and deeply internalized identity as ONE people. Viewing our fellow Jews as critical and inseparable extensions of our own personal identity, our shared identity propels us into taking collective action where our goals naturally align. Jewish unity, in its fullest expression, doesn’t fracture at disagreement, because it’s deeper than simple transactional or tactical alignment.
Between now and Shavuot, in the span between the Egyptian tactical unity at the sea and the profound expression of ontological unity from which Revelation was made possible, it is incumbent on all of us to strengthen our conception of, and commitment to, Jewish peoplehood. At a time when our differences are on full display, and where we concernedly witness the clash of tribal factions from our stiff-necked people passionately at odds with each other, we must, perhaps more than ever, recall that our unity goes deeper than agreement, and it is only from that anchor of unconditional unity that we can hope to build our path forward together.
In the spirit of the above, Rabbi Mordechai Harris is proud to be a member of The Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas (RAGD), a group that by its founding principles is consciously made up of individuals with intractable disagreements on core theological and philosophical issues, who nevertheless make it a priority to meet regularly out of recognition that we share a mutual obligation to care for, inspire and lead one Jewish people.
Rabbi Harris is further blessed to serve our community as chief impact officer and rabbi in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, an organization that embraces and champions the fact that we are one Jewish people no matter our differences, and from that seat of committed unity, works tirelessly to promote a singular mission, one capable of being shared by every member of our Jewish community, to help ensure the continuity of a strong and vibrant Jewish community in Dallas, Israel and throughout the world.