Religion & Beliefs

Visual Dispatch: What Shavuot Means For Israeli Unity

In the Torah reading for Shavuot, which we just celebrated, we read, "…and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain" (Exodus 19:2). The Hebrew word for "they encamped" is plural, while the following "Israel encamped" … Read More

By / June 11, 2008

In the Torah reading for Shavuot, which we just celebrated, we read, "…and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain" (Exodus 19:2). The Hebrew word for "they encamped" is plural, while the following "Israel encamped" is singular. Why the difference? The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that the singular expression implies that Israel appeared before God "as one man with one heart." On that one occasion there was no rivalry and no bickering.

I recently heard an expansion of this interpretation by Rav Gedalyah, a senior member of my shul. The man must be in his eighties, but he still makes it to the second minyan every morning. As for myself, I attend the early minyan, and after we finish praying a few of us stick around and drink a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey, the final preparations before facing the new day. Rav Gedalyah usually stops by where we schmooze and wishes us a good morning and peace upon the entire House of Israel. A few days ago, however, he came earlier than usual and sat down with us for a few minutes. With Israel's sixtieth anniversary celebrations still fresh in mind, he told us a story from the War of Independence.

Like so many other Holocaust survivors, Rav Gedalyah came to the British Mandate of Palestine with absolutely nothing. Here he was quickly put to work, and when the war started he became a soldier. He and his comrades received little training and had almost no equipment, yet faced an enemy many times stronger. His motley crew was sent to Latrun, where Jordanian snipers on the hill picked them off one by one. One day when it was time for afternoon prayers the Israeli soldiers were only sheltered by a tent. Jordanian mortar fire pounded the area when suddenly one of the soldiers stepped into a hole in the ground. When he pulled out his leg he discovered that the hole was in fact the opening to a cave. They all took shelter there and started praying. Five minutes later, a Jordanian mortar shell scored a direct hit on the tent where they had previously been standing.

"Rashi explains the singular by saying that the Children of Israel were 'as one man with one heart,' but how is such a unity achieved?" asked Rav Gedalyah. "The experience of that day made me think of what the text says a few verses later: 'Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.' Betachtit hahar: According to the Sages, this really means 'under the mountain.' That day at Latrun we were quite literally under the mountain, we were in a hole in the ground, and I can assure you that I have never experienced a stronger unity than I did that day. And that is how we defeated the Jordanians: not through might, but through unity."

View from the mountain of Herodium

(Above: The view from the mountain of Herodium south of Bethlehem. Photography by Paul Widen)