Unity and Individuality
Adapted by Braha Bender
Verses depicting Sinai described the Jewish People in the singular: “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). The sages describe us at that moment as being “like one person with one heart”. To God’s commandments, “the entire people responded together and said, ‘Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do!” (ibid 8).
At Sinai, selfish, petty, materialistic concerns were entirely out of the picture. Every man and woman in the nation was focused on giving, warmth, relationship, and connection. We were close to each other and close to God. The power of our unity was what made it possible for us to receive the Torah.
The Mishkan (Sanctuary) was to be a spiritual continuation of the Sinai experience. When visiting the Mishkan, and later the Beis HaMikdash (Temple), every Jew would be able to taste again the wondrous inspiration of the giving of the Torah. The Jewish People approached the building of the Mishkan with the same unity with which they had approached Sinai.
“From every man whose heart motivates him you shall take My portion” (ibid 25:2): The unity of the Jewish People did not subsume individual identity. To the contrary, building the Mishkan required the distinctive strengths of a wide range of intelligences and personalities. The unity of the Jewish People was not a facade made of haphazardly grafted forces, but an expression of an authentic, shared purpose and internal experience.
The Mishkan was built not only of gold and silver, but of that internal feeling motivating each individual to contribute his or her part. “From every man whose heart motivates him”: the emotional agenda was front and centre. By joining together in a sincere desire to bring the presence of God to dwell among them, the Jewish People merited that very thing.
In fact, unity was what made it possible for every person to express their individuality. Collaborating on shared goals gave every individual a context for unique self-expression. By leaving the group and abandoning the shared goals, the individual loses the context to express, define, and actualize individuality. By bringing us all together, receiving the Torah and building the Mishkan gave a home and a venue to our many unique abilities, ways of thinking, and other traits.
The central vessel of the Mishkan was the aron (ark) housing the original tablets engraved with the Torah. Atop the aron stood two golden statues called keruvim (cherubim). The keruvim had wings like angels and stood “with their faces toward one another” (ibid 20). Yet Chronicles often describes the keruvim as “facing the temple” (Chronicles 2, 3, 13) because the keruvim would change directions paralleling the nations spiritual state.
When the Jewish People were fulfilling the God’s will with love and respect for each other, the keruvim would face one another with caring and friendship. When the Jewish People chose selfish, destructive behaviour over kindness and holiness, the keruvim would face away from one another as an expression of the estrangement the Jews were creating in their relationship with God and each other.
The keruvim reminded us that God’s will cannot be fulfilled when we look away from one another. The Mishkan was eventually replaced by a larger, more permanent structure, the Beis HaMikdash (Temple), which was destroyed in 70 CE. Why was the Beis HaMikdash taken away from us?
Our sages explain that we lost the Beis HaMikdash because of baseless hatred. It’s not an arbitrary connection. When we’re not treating each other with love, respect, warmth, and friendship, we are not serving God properly. Coldness and selfishness snuffs out our spiritual light. Without love and connection with each other, and with God, our service in the Beis HaMikdash became meaningless. The building turned into an empty shell full of empty rituals. There was no life there, and the building was destroyed.
But we were not destroyed, and our spiritual pilot light still burns brightly. It is all within our reach: unity, closeness and friendship, love and respect, genuine spirituality and happy lives in the service of God. We can rebuild the Beis HaMikdash by rebuilding the unity of our people. May we merit these soon in our days.