An anecdote relates how a certain Jew was stranded for many years on a deserted island. When he was finally rescued, he boasted of his many accomplishments on the island, including the construction of two synagogues.
“Very impressive,” responded his rescuers. “But why two synagogues?”
“This is the synagogue that I attend,” explained the man, pointing at one structure. “The other one is the synagogue I refuse to step foot in.”
The joke would not be humorous if it did not contain a kernel of truth. The Jewish people often seem to be “blessed” with an overabundance of infighting. Why is there so much division and conflict?
The song of Ha’azinu compares the heritage of Israel to that of the other nations of the world:
“When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance... He set up the borders of the nations, corresponding to the number of Israel’s children.” (Deut. 32:8)
What are these “borders of the nations”? And in what way do they correspond to the “number” of Jewish people?
Every nation is blessed with unique national traits. Each nation possesses special talents and makes a unique contribution to the world. This specialty may lie in the arts, sciences, organizational ability, and so on. The verse refers to these areas of specialization as “borders.”
All of the talents that can be found among the nations of the world also exist in the “number” — that is, in the diversity — of the Jewish people. Historically, we have seen that Jews were always at the forefront of a remarkably diverse range of professions and disciplines.
The Midrash describes the diversity of Israel by comparing the size of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt — seventy souls — with the seventy nations of the world. This number represents the seventy archetypical souls, each with its own unique characteristics and talents. When God commanded Moses to organize leaders to govern the people, He told Moses to gather seventy elders (Num. 11:16). With these leaders, Moses brought together the people’s diverse range of outlooks and natural gifts.
The multi-talented diversity of the Jewish people, however, has a downside; it makes them more prone to internal friction and conflict. Each talent strives to express itself fully, often at the expense of other talents. The Sages noted that “The greater the person, greater his evil inclination” (Sukkah 52a). This insight is true not only for the individual, but also for the nation. When a nation is blessed with great talents, it has a greater potential for internal strife.
The Midrash uses a striking image as a metaphor for the Jewish people. It compares the nation to a palace constructed on top of many boats. As long as the boats are tied together, the Midrash notes, the palace will remain secure.
It is natural for each boat to try to make its own separate way in the sea. It is only the palace on top that keeps the fleet of boats together and ensures that they sail together in the same direction.
What is this palace? It is the force that guards against internal strife and unifies the Jewish people — the Torah itself. In its highest state, the Torah encompasses all areas of knowledge. The seventy elders, representing the full range of souls, gathered together to unite the people under one flag, “to perfect the world under the reign of God” (from the Aleinu prayer).
Diverse disciplines are harmoniously united when they can emphasize their contribution to the common good, as developed and refined under the guidance of the Torah. Then the diversity of the Jewish people becomes a blessing, as the nation is united via the root of its inner being — the Torah.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Orot p. 169, paragraph 6; Midbar Shur, pp. 110-115)