Parshat Beshalach: Jewish Unity is not Jewish Uniformity

Parashat Beshalach: Jewish Unity is not Jewish Uniformity

People generally expect to achieve unity by thinking and doing the same thing. But even during the splitting of the Red Sea, the children of Israel didn’t walk in a single path.

“If only we were to come together”… “If only there were unity in this nation”… We hear gripes like these almost every week, especially with elections approaching. After hearing about another round of fighting between different parties, we begin to daydream of an idyllic “unity” that, one day, will reunite the people of Israel.

It is quite fascinating to read, in countless sources, that when Hashem split the Red Sea, an event recounted in this week’s Parasha, He didn’t split the sea once, down the middle. Rather, he split it so that twelve separate paths were created! The Holy One, Blessed Be He led the Jewish people through the Red Sea on dry ground, but they didn’t all take the same path.

Maimonides comments that “… ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt, and another ten were performed at the [Red] Sea. The fifth miracle was that the sea was split into as many paths as there were tribes.”

Numerous other commentators agree with Maimonides [e.g. Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Exodus 14:29, Pirkei Derabi Eliezer (ch. 41), Mechilta Derabi Ishmael on Parashat Beshalach (ch. 4). They all confirm that the sea had been split into twelve paths, so that each tribe could cross the sea independently of the others.
Why was it so important for each tribe to cross the sea independently? After all, we are all members of the same nation. Pharaoh pursued all of the Jewish people, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He truly saved the ENTIRE nation when the Red Sea was split. If so, why separate them?

In fact, just a few weeks ago, we read the parshiot Vayeshev, Vayishlach, Vayigash, Miketz and Vayechi, which dealt extensively with the terrible rift between the progenitors of the tribes, who were all sons of Jacob. It was a divide that nearly led to Joseph’s murder, though he was eventually “merely” sold into slavery in Egypt. The sale of Joseph caused his loving father Jacob immense heartache. Jacob had to endure twenty-two years during which he hadn’t seen his son, believing he was dead. So why now, when the entire nation of Israel is about to be saved from the throes of Egypt, do we read of such a strong tradition that maintains that the sea was split into 12 parts?

I feel that these midrashim mean to teach us an important lesson on Jewish-style “unity”: unity isn’t the same as uniformity! Hashem had never wanted us to be one and the same. To the contrary, he divided the Jewish people into twelve nations to clarify and expound upon the difference between them! Everyone is a Jew, and everyone must operate within the framework of the Torah and the commandments, but each of us does so in a unique way. 

Indeed, quite a few halakhot teach us of the importance of preserving diversity within the Jewish people. We are commanded to appoint “judges and officers in all of your gates” [Devarim 16/18] upon reaching the land of Israel. The Gemara in tractate Sanhedrin [16b] teaches us that “it is a commandment for the tribes to judge their tribesmen”, and, as we see in Rashi’s commentary on this verse, “the men of one tribe shall not got to the court of another tribe.”

A judge from the tribe of Reuben wouldn’t understand what two litigants from the tribe of Issachar are going through, since he doesn’t dwell among them, within the environment they live and function in. Therefore, although all judges base their rulings on the teachings of the Torah, the viewpoint held by a judge from tribe X isn’t like that of a judge of tribe Y.

When the children of Israel reach the Land of Israel, the land is divided into tribal portions, and the prophet Ezekiel prophesized that when Israel returns to the land a third time, it will again be divided by tribe (Ezekiel 47/13), expressing yet again the need for diversity.

The Magen Avraham, in his preface to Ohr Hachayim Siman 68, says that we should be thankful for that variation in the Jewish prayer books – i.e. the differences in the prayers said by eastern Jewish, Ashkenazi Jews, Yemenite Jews, etc. “The local traditions followed in the performance of prayer should not be changed, since there are twelve gates in heaven, corresponding to the twelve tribes, and each tribe has its own gate and traditions.”

Unity is not uniformity, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He did not want us to put everyone into the same “mold” of Judaism. We all dress differently, and we even pray differently, just as long as all of these practices come under the framework of Torah and the commandments. The frame itself is well-defined, while the picture within varies from tribe to tribe, from community to community, from family to family, and., of course, from party to party.

To quote the Netziv of Volozhin:

… for the steady performance of the worship of Hashem is not the same for all people, one studies Torah and performs its commandments all day, another takes leave to work, and another performs acts of kindness, all of these are for the sake of heaven, and in the Torah itself [we read]: “Torah study isn’t uniform, so goes it for the performance of the mitzvot and acts of kindness.” Those who do these things are not all the same in the ways of their world. And if someone wishes to inquire which righteous path he should choose in his study method, or what to be particularly scrupulous with, regarding this, Ecclesiastes stated “and goes in the ways of your heart”, i.e. whatever his heart is drawn to, for it is a good matter, according to the strength of his soul”. (Harchev Davar on Parashat Bamidbar, 15:39)

Therefore, as the Jewish people took their first steps after being freed of bondage in Egypt, the Holy One, Blessed Be He “tore” the Red Sea in many places, and He did so to emphasize that we can disagree with each other, argue with each other, and have different opinions, but still, we are to be called the nation of Israel – the nation that sprung forth from the same grandfather, Israel, the same person whose children were rather distinct, and the same nation that adheres to the same foundation, the Torah and Jewish law.

In this way, and only in this way, can we be “one nation”. For this, we may thank the Holy One Blessed Be He, every day, every time we stand before Him in prayer, ending the last blessing with the words: “… the One who blesses His people, Israel, with peace”. 

As Rabbi Kook wrote in his commentary:

The proliferation of peace will occur when all of the sides and all of the methods of study become apparent, and it becomes clear how everyone has a place, each person according to his worth, his place, and his subject. For everyone will recognize that those who go in opposite ways and follow opposite methods, as it seems, they have all studied, and in every truth of those [truths] there is a side that will reveal the knowledge of hashem and the light of His truth. (Rabbi Kook, Ein Aya, the end of Tractate Berachot)

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