A Single Nation
Moshe assembled all the congregation of the Children of Israel, and said
to them: “These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should
do them.” (Shemos 35:1)
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The words are famous, and
they were part of a speech made by the 16th President of the United States
of America, Abraham Lincoln. He, of course, was making a pitch to abolish
slavery in the United States and bring an end to the Civil War, which he did.
He, of course, was right. The Jewish people are weak politically today
amongst the nations, and the Torah community is struggling amongst its own
here in Eretz Yisroel. Barely a week goes by in a Charedi publication that
does not decry the attack taking place against the Orthodox community in one
form or another. And, all of it, as this week’s parshah indicates, has to do
with the divided house of Israel.
“United we stand, divided we fall.” It means the same thing, and one of the
more subtle messages of this week’s parshah. In fact, it is more than just
interesting to note what the Arizal inserted in the preliminary morning
prayers, something which, at first, seems kind of out of place:
I am hereby am ready to fulfill the commandment to love my brother as myself.
I am? Aren’t I ready instead to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer? Perhaps after
prayer is over such a statement is fitting to make and focus on, as we leave
the sheltered world of the synagogue and head out into the world of people,
a world in which it can be so much easier to hate your neighbor than to love
But that is true only if you look at prayer as an individual experience, and
not as the communal activity it is meant to be. In fact, though the person
standing next to me, or even across the shul from me, may annoy me, the
truth is that I need him. For, he is part of my minyan, and it is a minyan
that, for many today, allows the prayers of the individual members to make
it to Heaven and be heard on high.
This is because praying to God may be a simple matter of opening up a prayer
book and reading the words, but having one’s prayers accepted in Heaven is
another matter altogether. The upper world is a perfect world, the most
sincere of all. On earth, perhaps you can fake your way into exclusive
organizations, but in Heaven, they read everyone like a book, and that goes
for our prayers as well.
So, before we blame God for not listening to our prayers, we have to first
examine our prayers and see if they even have the umph to make it to God in
the first place. For, even though God can knows our prayers the moment we
think of them, even before articulating them, there is system in place that
must bring our prayers before Him, and until it does, He acts as if He can’t
This is what it means when it says:
It came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt
died. And the Children of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they
cried out; and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God.
Until that time God hadn’t seen what His people were going through? Until
that moment, the Omniscient didn’t hear the crying of His children? Of
course He did. However, until that time the Jewish people had adapted to the
situation, and whatever complaints they had did not qualify as cries for
help, at least not enough to penetrate all the levels between God and man to
trigger Heavenly mercy.
Once upon a time, man was exceptionally close to God. In fact, prior to the
sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam HaRishon talked to God
in very much the same way we speak to one another. And, when he decided to
do something, God gave him immediate permission to carry it out. The first
man, by way of his closeness to the Almighty, was a very powerful human being.
However, Adam HaRishon made a critical mistake, resulting in a great
reduction in his spiritual level, and therefore, greatly distancing him from
God. The direct connection to the Master of the Universe man once enjoyed
was gone, and after his spiritual demotion, his prayers required Heavenly
intermediaries to bring them before God. The further away from God the
person is, the longer the chain of angels between his mouth and God’s ear.
But angels are not robots. They are spiritual beings created by God but
fueled by the good deeds of man, be they acts, words, or thoughts. This way,
in order for mankind to rectify the First Man’s mistake, personally and
globally, he is forced to work on himself to come closer to God. The result
is to reduce the amount of angels necessary for the person to connect to his
Creator, increasing the chance of being heard and answered by God more
This is what it means when it says that righteous people decree, and God
fulfills. Righteous people are those individuals who constantly improve
themselves spiritually, bringing them closer to God on a momentary basis. As
they climb the spiritual ladder, they eliminate the need for levels of
angels, reducing the distance their words have to travel to God and
increasing the chances of being heeded on high.
But, what about the rest of us? Does that mean our prayers often do not make
it to Heaven, God forbid?
It depends. For, there are some things in Creation that count a lot to God,
so-much-so that He can give a person, or his prayers, a certain status even
when the person himself lacks the actual merit to attain such a level on his
own. One such ‘thing’ is a collective and cooperative body of Jews. God just
loves when Jews care and look out for each other, even making sacrifices for
Hence, the power of a minyan. Indeed, a minyan is so powerful that it can
boost the prayers of a person Heavenward in a way that the individual could
never do on his own. The synergy of many Jews working together at the same
thing—for good of course—can create a connection to God that the same people
could never create as individuals.
In fact, this is what k’ish echad b’leiv echad—like a single person with a
single heart, is really indicating (Shemos 19:2). It isn’t just saying that
the Jewish people achieved an unprecedented level of national unity at the
time the Torah was being given. It is saying that this is what made possible
the giving of Torah, for without such unity the spiritual level of the
Jewish people would have been below the necessary level for Kabbalas
HaTorah. Their unity changed something significant.
The question is, what? The answer is the reason why the Arizal inserted the
declaration of loving one’s neighbor as himself at the beginning of the
morning prayer service, considering the Ramban’s explanation of the mitzvah.
What does the mitzvah to love one’s neighbor as himself actually mean?
Wouldn’t a better mitzvah be to love one’s neighbor more than himself? If
that were the case, would it not be easier to care for other people, and be
self-sacrificing for them? As the Talmud points out, the mitzvah stated as
is can get tricky sometimes given some of the situations life can throw at a
person (Bava Metziah 62a).
As it has been pointed out previously a few times, though the mitzvah to
love your neighbor as yourself sounds like a mitzvah of chesed, the truth
this, the Ramban points out, there are other mitzvos that already teach us
to be that way. For example, there is a mitzvah to be like God, which the
Rambam explains means to care for others just as God cares for everyone.
Rather, explains the Ramban, the mitzvah to love others as you love yourself
is really a mitzvah to be objective, which is why I can’t love my neighbor
more than me. For, the moment I love myself more than another person, I will
be personally subjective and distort the truth to suit my personal agenda.
However, the moment I love my neighbor more than myself, I will be
subjective for him, and distort reality to make his life better. Either way,
I am distorting reality.
When it comes to doing chesed, the latter is not such a problem. Some times
people need more than the truth so that they can return to it later.
However, when it comes to one’s relationship with God, there is no room for
any falsehood or distortion of truth especially when it comes to learning
His Torah and transmitting it to others.
If so, then we can appreciate the Arizal’s insertion in the morning prayers.
At the start of a new day, especially first thing in the morning, it is easy
to be self-focused. With things to do and people to see, it is easy to
already be after dovening even before you have started. Some people don’t
even show up, though they are physically there, having already started their
work day before they even left for work.
What kind of a minyan can that end up being? For, a minyan is more than just
10 or more bodies collected together for a common event. The minds and
hearts have to be there as well, to some degree, working together for a
common cause. People have to be there for God, to seek Him out, to talk to
Him, and to feel His Presence. Unity is a matter of the intellect, not one
of the body, what Rashi called b’leiv echad k’ish echad, the reverse of the
Sinai Experience, when referring to the Egyptians who chased the Jewish
people into the sea.
And, how does one know when one is ‘there’ in the full sense of the term, if
he is a part of the whole and not wholly a part? When he is objective about
the moment. And, how does one know when he has achieved such objectivity?
Says the Ramban, says the Arizal, when he can love his neighbor as himself,
not less than himself and not more than himself.
This is the kind of objectivity that allows a person to build an undivided
house. This is the kind of intellectual impartiality that allows the Jewish
people to overcome their differences and become a united front against the
darkness of history. This is the message that Moshe Rabbeinu imparted at the
beginning of this week’s parshah by gathering everyone together. He wasn’t
just bringing together a lot of individuals for a group gathering, but
rather, he was building Klal Yisroel, synergizing the nation to become Am
Echad—A Single Nation.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.