Monday, January 28, 2013


 The zenith of Jewish history probably took place more than 3,300 years ago the when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai and experienced what is called “national revelation” – the entire nation experienced prophecy and heard the voice of God.
 If you pay attention to the Hebrew used in describing the event there is an interesting anomaly in the text (Exodus 19:2): “They (the Jewish people) traveled from Refidim and arrived in the Sinai Desert and they camped (in Hebrew v’yachanu in the plural) in the desert.” The second part of the same sentence, however states: “…and they camped (v’yichan in the singular) opposite the mountain (Mt. Sinai). The use of the term v’yahan in the singular, in place of the v’yachanu, in the plural, which is usually used to describe the nation’s encampments, catches the attention of the great medieval Bible commentator, Rashi, who states in his commentary on the this verse: “As one man with one heart – but all the other encampments were with complaints and arguments.”  This simple statement contains a very profound lesson:  

Unity is the critical component for the success of the Jewish people.

Only when the Jewish people were unified did they merit achieving the highest spiritual connection with God. Sadly, as Rashi’s commentary reflects, this is a rare experience not just the generation that left Egypt, but for every generation since.
Exodus from Egypt
The Jewish people have a well-earned reputation for being fractious and argumentative and much of Jewish humor reflects this point.  There’s the classic joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues – one he prays in and the second one which he refuses to enter!  The question is what is the root of this trait?

The answer lies in the very essence of who the Jewish people are and what they stand for. From their earliest history they have always been, as the Bible says so beautifully, “A nation that dwells alone.”  From the birth of Abraham to the birth of Christianity, for 2,000 years, they stood alone in the world as the only people who believed in one God and one absolute standard of morality. This unique world view put the Jews at odds, often violently, with the greatest empires and civilizations, but it enabled them to outlast enemies far more powerful than they and to change the world more profoundly than probably any other people.

The secret to the incredible durability and disproportionate impact of the Jews lies in traits that Abraham embodied and passed on to his descendants – an intense drive for meaning and a stubborn dedication  to truth regardless of any and all consequences. The best word to describe this trait is probably chutzpah.

This intensity and drive also has a negative side to it. The most oft-repeated criticism of the Jewish people in the Bible is that they are a “stiff-necked” people. While the rabbis point out (Shemot Rabbah 42:9) that this trait has enabled the Jewish people to stubbornly cling to their beliefs, even at the pain of death, it makes the Jews a particularly individualistic  fractious and argumentative people.

This divisiveness  has proven to be the great “Achilles heel” of the nation throughout its history and has often led to situations that no author of fiction would ever conceive of:

In the year 70 CE, during the Great Revolt, when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem, the Jewish population inside the city was fighting a civil war and some of the rebels went so far as to deliberately destroy the food supplies stockpiled in the city against the siege.

In the Warsaw Ghetto in  April of 1943, after 70% of the ghetto’s occupants has already been murdered in Treblinka, the mainstream Zionist organization in the ghetto refused to work with the Revisionist Zionists during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising due to ideological differences.

In Israel’s first Knesset elections in 1949, the country had 600,000 citizens, yet no less than 21 parties ran in the first election. In the most recent election in January 2013, the country’s population had reached over 7,000,000 with 34 parties competing for 120 seats in the Knesset.

The Jewish people have often proven to be their own worst enemy even at times when external threats are huge and even existential, as in 70 CE, or the threats facing Israel today. Unity seems to be the most elusive and difficult objective for the Jewish people to achieve.

These traits have made the job of unifying and leading the Jewish people probably the toughest leadership challenge in history.  It is probably easier to be the emperor of a billion Chinese than the mayor of a town of 100 Jews!

This stubborn, stiff-necked nature of the Jewish people is an integral part of their spiritual genetic makeup and will never disappear. Even though it poses a tremendous challenge, it can be controlled and even positively directed, but in order to do this, the Jewish people must make a major paradigm shift.

The natural tendency of an individualistic personality is to focus on differences – what sets me apart from others. The Jewish people excel at this trait. That’s why there are so many political parties, opinions and synagogues in Israel.  The crucial step that could change everything would be to get the Jewish people to start focusing on what they have in common: their homeland, their history, their ancient source of wisdom (the Torah) and their destiny.

This is the one idea that could truly change everything. If a critical mass of Jews, from all backgrounds and beliefs, would take this first crucial step, to overlook the differences and to focus on unity and work together, then they could once again reach the lofty spiritual heights achieved at Mt. Sinai, build a nation that is truly “a light unto the nations,” and finish the job that Abraham started almost 3,800 years ago.

Note:  The author is currently working on a Jewish unity project called  If you are interested in learning more or getting involved email:

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