The Dangers of 'Too Much' Unity
A Message for Parashat Ekev 2017
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Moshe recounted the tragic aftermath of Ma’amad Har Sinai in Parashat Ekev. He remembered the stone tablets that God presented to him “on the day of the assembly” (9:10), the sudden demand that he descend the mountain and contend with the sinning nation at Het ha-Egel (12), and God’s will to destroy them and “wipe out their name” (14). Turning to the people who had gathered in his midst, Moshe beckoned them to examine their past. He urged them to grow from the failure and to make sure to never repeat it.
Moshe’s choice to retell the story of Het ha-Egel in full detail indicates a lesson beyond the sole prohibition of idolatry. He was seemingly urging the people to carefully analyze the story in search of the underlying flaws that led to catastrophe. Moshe was teaching that true growth means uncovering the mistakes that lay at the core of past actions. But he never revealed that secret. He left open the question of “What caused Het ha-Egel?” I believe that the responsibility to answer that question remains as important today as it did back then.
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Rashi famously cited the Hakhamim’s description of Am Yisrael’s unity as they approached Har Sinai. He wrote that they encamped “as one person with one heart.” The Rabbis’ description of national unity as the prerequisite to receiving the Torah highlights its importance. The Torah’s precise wording in the ensuing episode of Het ha-Egel, however, seems to hint at an ironic threat that was present in that very unity.
As Moshe retold the story of Het ha-Egel, he curiously referenced Matan Torah as “the day of the assembly” (9:10). Indeed, the imagery of an “assembled nation” was a relevant theme to their subsequent sin, as initially told in Parashat Ki Tisa:
And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him, “Rise and make us gods that will go before us…” (Shemot 32:1)
Possessed by a common goal, the people banded together in unity to demand the creation of a calf. It appears, then, that the nation’s unity aided their sin. Did it cause it? To answer this question, we must first distinguish between “appropriate” unity, and “too much” unity.
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And God said, ‘As one people with one language for all, if this is what they begin to do.’ (Bereshit 11:6)
The Torah’s early history provided a cautionary tale regarding “too much” unity, at the Tower of Bavel. The story began with unity: “And all the earth was one language, one set of words” (1). It proceeded with the stated goal: “And they said, come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens,” and a purpose that was inspired by unity: “That we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth” (4). Discerning evil in their endeavor, God foiled the plan by baffling their languages and scattering them all over the earth (8). The tale of Migdal Bavel thus exists as the Torah’s stern warning about the dangers of “too much” unity.
In what way was the unity of the people at that time “too much”? R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, widely known as Nessiv, described this episode as the world’s first totalitarianism. The people’s “one language and one set of words” represented a suppressed freedom of expression whose purpose was to preserve the masses as a single entity – to “make a name for themselves.”
God’s description of Het ha-Egel represented the chilling repetition of Migdal Bavel in a new context. He first told Moshe how the people had gathered together to create a structure that would rival the true God. He then added a seemingly irrelevant detail. God revealed the words that the people were chanting:
“These are your gods, Yisrael, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Shemot 32:8)
Shifting the attention from the broader theme of the statement and focusing instead on its specific wording, the people’s description of themselves in the third-person – Yisrael – seems odd. It appears, however, that they were now invoking their national name, and declaring its significance. The story of Migdal Bavel had returned! A unified nation had now succeeded in the mission to build a structure which strengthened “their name.”
Moshe recalled God’s immediate reaction to the sin:
Leave me be, that I may destroy them and wipe out their name from under the heavens.” (Devarim 9:14)
God stated that destruction of the people’s physical traces would not suffice. The nation had reached the unhealthy state of “too much” unity, wherein they would sacrifice their individual rights and existence for the realization of a single entity – “a national name.” God therefore told Moshe that he sought more than destruction of the people – he was determined to “wipe out their name.”
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It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress. (John Stuart Mill)
Best-selling author and legal-scholar Cass Sunstein highlighted the novelty of America’s founding fathers. He explained:
The Constitution’s framers made a substantial break with conventional republican thought, focusing on the potential benefits of diversity for democratic debate. Indeed, it is here that we can find the framers’ greatest and most original contribution to political theory. For them, heterogeneity, far from being an obstacle, would be a creative force, improving deliberation and producing better outcomes.
Indeed, the United States of America was built on the grounds of “appropriate” unity. It was purposed to set forth a healthy blend of a shared vision and common goals with the freedom of individual expression.
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Het ha-Egel was born out of a national unity that had grown unhealthy. Individual thought and rationality were suspended in the national effort to solidify “Yisrael” as a single entity. It became impossible to hear the individual voices of dissent above the deafening roar of “These are your gods, Yisrael!”
Standing on the heels of Tisha be-Av, many of us have set our minds upon building national and communal unity. The broader storyline of Ma’amad Har Sinai – viewed from its initial beginnings through its ultimate aftermath – must guide us in this endeavor. It must encourage us to come together as a nation and community by embracing common goals and objectives, but to always leave space for the diversity of thought and opinion.