They …arrived at the Sinai Wilderness and encamped in the wilderness. Yisrael encamped there, opposite the mountain.
Be’er Mayim Chaim: Chazal note the switch from plural to singular in our pasuk. The “they” that arrives at the wilderness is in the plural; when Yisrael encamps, however, the verb changes to singular. Chazal understand this to be saying that when the Bnei Yisrael readied themselves for receiving the Torah, they did so in absolute unity, “as one person, with one purpose.”
This commonality of purpose is impressive and inspiring, but why does it form the prelude to kabbolas haTorah? Such unity is perhaps subsumed under the mitzvah of shalom (as the opposite of disputatiousness, which is a transgression of the lo sa’aseh that prohibits acting like Korach and his assembly2), but that begs the question. Shalom is one of many mitzvos of the Torah. Why should adherence to one mitzvah of a Torah that had not yet been given be more important than any other mitzvah that would be part of its future instruction?
Let us suppose that to appreciate and internalize the experience of ma’amad Har Sinai – the single most important moment in our nations’s history – people had to have achieved a certain degree of spiritual elevation. We now find ourselves in a vicious circle. We need Torah to perfect ourselves. But without some movement towards perfection, we can’t properly receive the Torah!
A solution presented itself in the person of Moshe Rabbenu, who was the rare exception. He certainly understood much of Torah even before it was formally given. (This came about through the extraordinary kedushah he achieved by purifying his physical self.) By binding themselves fully – with all parts of themselves, united in a common purpose – to Moshe, the Bnei Yisrael placed themselves in a much better position to receive the Torah.
Klal Yisrael is often likened to a single body, composed of people who function like the different organs of an individual person. The leaders of each generation are called roshim/ heads, because they function in the same elevated role of importance as the head does to the rest of the body. There are others who look ahead at the best interests of the people, and determine policy. They are called the “eyes of the congregation.” Similarly, some function as the heart, and indeed like other parts of the body. When bound together, all Jews function synergistically, like the organ systems of a person working together in concert.
Because Jews are tied together organically in this manner, halacha sees all of us as responsible for the actions of our fellows, when we have the ability to influence them. We cannot shirk that responsibility any more than we can contain the consequences of a single organ failure. Because the parts of the body are so deeply interconnected, a problem with one organ causes damage that is widespread throughout the body. Similarly, the transgression of any Jew affects all others.
This is not immediately intuitive. There is such disparity of spiritual levels among the people that we cannot understand why the transgression of a commoner should affect the most revered leader. In truth, the interaction is pronounced – but subtle. The sins of the common folk leave a mark on the leaders in a tell-tale manner. The overt transgressions of the ordinary people do not cause the leaders to actively sin, but they do cause those leaders to sin by way of improper thoughts. The arrow points in the opposite directions as well. When the leaders of the generation sin in thought alone, the common people are impacted so that they succumb to active transgression. (This is what the Torah means in typifying the sin of the anointed kohen as “bringing guilt upon the people.”3 A small sin of a leader impacts upon the people in an enlarged manner, leading them to much greater transgression.)
We know that Hashem’s midah of good is vastly more powerful than His exercise of justice. If the sins of leaders have such powerful impact on the lives of the rest of the nation, we can be certain that their mitzvos and accomplishments have much greater impact. Because Moshe Rabbenu clung closely to HKBH, his entire generation was elevated through him – enough, in fact, to be able to receive the Torah.
It is for this reason that the Aseres HaDibros are formulated in the singular, as if speaking to one person. In effect, Hashem was speaking to a single individual – the collective of Klal Yisrael. The people had encamped at the mountain united in purpose. Having become like a single person, with all the different organs and parts working well together, they were ready to receive the Torah, elevated through their connection to Moshe.
1. Based on Be’er Mayim Chaim, Shemos 19:2
2. Sanhedrin 110A
3. Vayikra 4:3