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Parsha Ponderings – Mishpatim – The State of Our Union

ויבא משה ויספר לעם את כל דברי ד’ ואת כל המשפטים, ויען כל העם קול אחד ויאמרו כל אשר דבר ד’ נעשה: ויכתב משה את כל דברי ד’ וישכם בבקר ויבן מזבח תחת ההר, ושתים עשרה מצבה לשנים עשר שבטי ישראל

And Moshe came, and told the people all the words of God and all the laws, and the entire people responded with one voice and said, “All that God has said, we shall do.” And Moshe wrote all the words of God, arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain [Sinai], and twelve monuments corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.

As the Torah recaps the events surrounding the Revelation at Sinai, we become privy to certain details which were left out in the original account. Specifically, we learn of an entire ritual process through which the Israelites entered the Godly Covenant. As the Torah tells it, immediately upon the Israelites response in the affirmative to God’s offer of the Torah, Moshe got busy building an altar, upon which sacrificial offerings were then brought, with half of their blood being sprinkled on the altar, and the other half on the heads of the Israelites.

While no part of this process is simply understood, there is one detail which seems entirely unexplained. The Torah mentions that Moshe erected twelve monuments, corresponding to the twelve tribes, together with the altar. Yet never is anything mentioned again about those twelve monuments, nor is any indication given as to their intended purpose. What was the point of the twelve monuments, how did they represent the twelve tribes, and why did they make their appearance specifically at this juncture?

Perhaps the answer can be gleaned by comparing the verse prior to the mention of the monuments to the verses which follow thereafter. Initially, we are told, the Israelites responded to God’s offer by stating, in one voice, “All that God said we shall do”. Moshe then built the altar and monuments, and had the sacrifices slaughtered. What came next, tells the Torah, was as follows:

ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם, ויאמרו כל אשר דבר ד’ נעשה ונשמע

And he [Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people,and they said, “All that God has spoken, we shall do and we shall listen.”

The question is obvious: Hadn’t the Jew’s already accepted the Torah? Why was it necessary for them to reiterate their acceptance? Furthermore, why did they now add the words, “and we shall listen”? And what had become of their having responded “in one voice” during round one? Was that unanimity somehow deemed unnecessary on second thought?

The beauty of sequence is obvious to the discerning eye. Certainly, all must accept the Torah in complete and absolute unanimous fashion. For the Jewish nation to truly fuse with the word of God, they could be no less of one mind, than the Divine Word itself. Truth is omnipotent, and its implementation must therefore be omnipresent. The acceptance would have to come as one voice, emanating from one ubiquitous entity.

On that count, the Israelites had certainly got it right.

What Moshe feared, however, was that the Israelites would confuse homogeneity, with uniformity. Lest they make the mistake of coming to view Torah as some sort of absolutist, personality-stifling regimen of totalitarianism, Moshe chose precisely that moment to remind them of the central role individuality plays in Judaism, by erecting twelve monuments representative of the twelve unique tribes of Israel. Yes, the Jewish nation was to be one body, bound by uniform rules of conduct, yet that body was to be comprised of twelve unique tribes, and millions of unique individuals, with an equal amount of unique and unparalleled functions.

But how is there room for individuality in so uniform a system?

Apparently, the Israelites figured it out.

“We shall do”, is said in one voice. “We shall do and we shall hear”, however, is not.

The actions are uniform, yet the experience, or the “hear”ing, as it were, is not. A foot does not experience walking the same way a heart does, nor does a mouth participate in respiration as does the lung. Yes, the parameters of our collective actions are defined by what the Torah permits and what the Torah forbids, and those parameters are indeed uniform, for only within their bounds can we function as one. The parts we play in those collective actions, however, are as diverse as the human spirit itself. The hearts will inspire, the hands will do, the brains will plan, the mouths will speak, the livers will cleanse, and yes, even the tonsils will find something to busy themselves with.

Being one, does not mean being none. We are to be in a state of union, not a union of state.





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