Parshat Yitro 5770 (from Ireland)

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… and Israel encamped there: as one man with one heart, but all the other encampments were [divided] with complaints and with strife — Rashi 19:2

Last Shabbat while many of us were praying devoutly in shul, a strange activity was taking place on Grafton Street in Dublin’s city centre. A group of young people gathered at a pre-arranged time, with a portable music system, and simultaneously started dancing to loud music with choreographed movements, to the enjoyment of bemused passersby.

Apparently this is what is called a flash mob. And if you look up this concept on the web (as I did) you will find that flash mobs were originally invented as a kind of social experiment to poke fun at conformists but ended up doing just the opposite. Many of these impromptu performances have taken place across the globe at all kinds of events, places and times, and involve very varied behaviour. Some involve large groups of people freezing on the spot for an amount of time, whether in a supermarket of a sports stadium, while others involve song, dance, and even mass public pillow fights. The number of participants is sometimes so large, and is spread so quickly via social networking that they are able to bring train stations and road traffic to a standstill. The largest to date was an enormous group of over 20,000 people in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile in October of last year.

So what is it that inspires huge masses of people to participate in these events, to show up with a group of random strangers and try to dance in perfect sync before disappearing?

Well maybe the answer is that many of us like to be part of a big picture, part of a cohesive unit, be it a school team, a scout group, college fraternity, office team or even an army unit. We like the feeling of being one piece of a symbiotic jigsaw; one small detail that contributes to something of beauty. The joining together of so many different people of such diverse backgrounds, and of differing emotional and intellectual makeup, with one unified purpose in mind can be motivational and even inspiring – even if the focus may sometimes be trivial.

In this week’s Torah reading the Jewish people arrive in the Sinai desert to receive the Ten Commandments. When the Children of Israel travel they are referred to in the plural form: they escaped, they travelled, they were kvetching etc – except this time. As the Jews camp at the base of Mount Sinai after counting down precious days on the calendar the Torah changes tense – “VaYichan Shom Yisroel – and Israel encamped there” is written in the Hebrew singular form – he camped.

The Sages comment here immediately: The Torah uses a singular expression to tell us something singular about the people – that despite their constant kvetching, quarrelling and lack of homogeny, at this historical moment as they all focused on the same goal, they were unified as one person with one heart. They were totally in concord with one another – all these millions of diverse people.

The Talmud in Berachot (58a) teaches of a special blessing recited when a group of 600,000 people gather together, praising G-d for creating such diversity – no two people alike. Yet at that historic moment in time when the Jewish People were awaiting the Divine Gift of the Torah, they stood as one. And when we stand as one, we can receive incredible blessings from Above.

Let us aspire to emulate this tremendous unity, and in turn may we merit to say the blessing mentioned in the Talmud, when we gather with the huge crowds at the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash in our holy city of Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Zalman Lent

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