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.
In the section describing the Jewish people’s encampment across from Mount Sinai before receiving the Torah (Exodus 19:2), the celebrated Torah commentator Rashi says that this is the one time in their long 40-year stint in the desert that everyone set up tents all together – all the other times, they complained, argued, and did everything individually.
Though Rashi highlights the unfortunate rarity of Jewish agreement and unity in the Torah and throughout the generations, he also shows the power of coming together – when the Jewish people unite, they can achieve the highest of spiritual heights.
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. Since the beginning of their history as a nation, 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 also 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 Rabbah42:9) 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 devisiveness 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, when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem, the Jewish population inside the city was fighting a civil war and one group 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 had already been murdered in Treblinka, the mainstream Zionist organization in the ghetto refused to work with the Revisionist Zionists during the 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 state 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.
The natural tendency of an individualistic personality is to focus on differences – what sets me apart from others. 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.