I received a letter this week from a man in New York who reads the Hebrew Mishpacha magazine regularly. In my Hebrew column, I wrote about a discussion that took place in shul at the end of Shavuos, which I will present here, together with his response.
At the end of Shavuos, as the sky grew dim and we gathered in shul for Maariv, a few of us who’d arrived early were exchanging our impressions of the chag. Each of us in turn spoke of a chiddush that came to him in his learning, or a new perspective on the special kedushah of the day of Matan Torah.
One of the parties to the discussion had this to say: “For the first time in my life I noticed that there’s an interesting connection between Shavuos and the Parshah we read on the Shabbos before the chag, Parshas Bamidbar. I don’t know why I only noticed it now — maybe because Shabbos and Shavuos came together this year. But whatever the reason, I saw a connection that has so much to say to us, especially in these times.”
He went on to explain: “What does Parshas Bamidbar talk about? About the division of the people according to their tribes, and their arrangement around the Mishkan at their center. Each tribe had its own flag. Obviously, the Torah is giving its official approval to the differences among the Tribes, the unique essence of each one. But while each Tribe has its separate identity, they are all united around the Mishkan of Hashem. There’s a profound essay on this subject by Rav Yonah Martzbach ztz”l of Yeshivas Kol Torah. It’s called Am HaShvatim, and in it, he shows that no Tribe was like the others, sometimes even in matters of halachah l’maaseh. You’re welcome to read the essay if you want the details. In summary, he shows that this is the ideal situation; this is how Am Yisrael is meant to work: one nation, twelve tribes, each one intentionally different from the others.”
My colleague from shul went on to wonder in amazement how the very next day we had Maamad Har Sinai. And most of us are familiar with the Midrash on the pasuk, “Vayichan sham Yisrael — And Israel camped there, facing the mountain.” The Midrash goes on to explain, “Great is shalom, for throughout all their travels, the Torah says vayis’u, vayachanu, in the plural, to indicate that they were divided as they traveled and divided as they camped. But when they came before Har Sinai, they all became one camp, as is written: ‘Vayichan sham Yisrael’ — not ‘Vayachanu sham bnei Yisrael.’ HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, “This is the right time to give the Torah to My children.’ ”
“I always understood that to mean that an amazing miracle occurred, and all the bnei Yisrael suddenly became united,” my shul friend explained. No disagreements had them split up into factions. No differences of approach divided them into separate communities. There were no chassidim and misnagdim, no Ashkenazim and Sephardim. All differences melted away on this awesome day of Matan Torah, and the Jewish people became one solid unit.
“But this year,” my friend went on to say, “after reading Parshas Bamidbar just the day before, I realized that this wasn’t the pshat. The Torah had just taught us that the people weren’t one homogeneous unit. It comprised twelve Tribes, and that was the beauty of it. Each Tribe was given its place and its flag by Divine command. Each Tribe with its own character, its own attributes, its own particular approach, and its own special part to play in the national scheme. The differences were part and parcel of the whole picture. The contrasts were meant to be there, and they didn’t disappear.
“But at the moment of Matan Torah, every Tribe, with all its unique qualities, came to receive the Torah, to absorb into its unique self the Torah that belongs to them all. Each Tribe retained its identity and was enlightened by the Torah, understanding just how it was meant to complete the mosaic of the Jewish people. Do you understand what I’m saying? There has to be unity, but it comes out of diversity?”
“You mean pluralism?” someone said, tossing out the dreaded catchword in a tone of alarm.
“No, no! Chalilah! Not pluralism, the way the word is used in the street. When people use the word pluralism, they mean no boundaries; anything anybody feels like doing is fine. The lofty principle of pluralism makes the lowest behavior legitimate. But yes, pluralism! Pluralism, meaning multiplicity, diversity within the boundaries of halachah. Yes, pluralism, meaning different opinions, contrasting approaches, but all subject to the basic code of Matan Torah.”
“You mean nehara nehara ufashtei[YL1] , as the saying goes. To each river, its course…”
“Yes, to each his own. But today, a lot of people want to overturn that idea. They want to force their way of life on other groups that are no less yirei Shamayim than themselves, groups that live by the Torah, only they take a different approach. Come on, don’t get me started… do I have to tell you everything these roughnecks say and do? They think the Torah was given only to them, and they’re the only ones who are qualified to transmit it. And they think they have a license to use violence, and not just verbal violence, to get their message across.”
“And this is the special insight you had on Shavuos?”
“I had this insight, yes, but of course, not only this insight. This was just the one that jumped out at me. It’s strangling the frum community, weighing us down and causing a lot of distortions. It’s created an atmosphere of anything goes, as long as I’m doing it in the name of ‘kedushah’ or ‘hashkafah.’ And that is just wrong. The Torah wants diversity. It wants the Tribes. Why does it want the Tribes? That’s a subject for another discussion. But just imagine how our lives would look if every group recognized the legitimacy of the other group and was appreciative of it, despite its very different way of serving Hashem.”
Our discussion didn’t end at this point; it wandered onto other, less painful subjects connected more to kabbalas haTorah and diligence in learning.
That was what I wrote in the Hebrew magazine last week, and here, in summary, is my reader’s response to it: “Why is there no mention of the lack of unity around the big rally at Citi Field? Even for a war against the Internet disaster, the unity of vayichan sham Yisrael wasn’t achieved.” He went on to give details that I am omitting on purpose.
I can only say that I disagree with my honored reader. The rally at Citi Field achieved its aim. It stirred up awareness of the present-day enemy that is threatening to destroy us. I will concede a point, however, to my letter-writer. He is right in saying that if our people were fully united on this issue, without entrenching themselves behind different ideologies and interests, then our victory over the enemy would be complete. Maybe on another occasion, space permitting, I’ll prove his point.