One Heart: The Message of Shavuot

In the third month following the children of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt; that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai… And there Israel camped opposite the mountain (Exodus 19:1-2)

At all their other encampments, the verse says vayachanu (“and they camped,” in the plural); here it says vayichan (“and he camped,” in the singular). For all other encampments were in argument and dissent, whereas here they camped as one human, with one heart (Mechilta, Rashi)

Many thinkers argue that our understanding of the universe has evolved from a pluralistic view to a singular view. Earlier in history, our so-called primitive perspective measured the universe with the naked senses, resulting in a perception that the world was made up of many different parts, ruled by diverse forces.

Today, however, we have developed a far more sophisticated appreciation of the universe as one unified whole. The multitude of systems and organisms are all part of a single entity and the countless personalities of nature all fall under several unifying laws that govern all of existence. And the search for the one “unified field theory,” which will explain all phenomena, remains the defining and ultimate scientific achievement.

When exactly did this perception change? When did humankind begin to see – experience – the universe as one unified entity, instead of a composite of myriad pieces?

According to the Torah it happened over 3300 years ago today, when the nation of Israel camped opposite Mt. Sinai.


What power did Sinai have that united the people when they “camped opposite the mountain”?

The Midrash explains that at Sinai an unprecedented experience took place that would change the course of all history. Up till that point that which was “above” did not descend “below” and that which was “below” did not ascend “above.” The spiritual and sublime was divorced from the material and the mundane. Spirit and matter were two forces that could not join. Obviously, even before Sinai matter and energy were essentially one (E=MC2 was discovered, not created by Einstein), but human beings were unable to integrate them.

Sinai changed all that. It married heaven and earth, integrating the sublime and the mundane, uniting the majestic and the plain.

In one word: Fusion. Sinai achieved a total fusion of matter and spirit. It empowered mankind to renovate the very nature of existence; to transform the material into spiritual fuel. We now can take an inanimate, physical object, and convert it into sublime energy; to bring alive every fiber of our beings and every aspect of our existence. To take what would have been an ordinary experience and make it extraordinary. Instead of a fleeting moment, a transient life can become eternal, the temporary can become permanent and the mortal – immortal.

This unprecedented fusion changed not only the global landscape, but – and perhaps even more importantly – it transformed our personal experience.

The human being is a universe in microcosm. We too are comprised of two forces: Our bodies and our souls. Each of us has a “biological” voice of survival, which rest side by side a transcendental voice seeking relief. Can we integrate these two forces? Or are we condemned, at best, to a compartmentalized life: Most of the time involved in the struggle for survival, otherwise known as our physical needs, while attempting to carve out moments (or weekends) for transcendental activities, which take on many shapes, some healthy, some not so: Romance, music, art, travel, spirituality and faith. Transcendental thirst is sometimes quenched through self-destructive “waters” – various (physical or psychological) obsessions or addictions – anything to “get out of this place” of the monotonous grind.

Sinai introduced into our lives a new way of being: You do not have to segment your life into two (or more) parts. You have the power to spiritualize the material, and to fuse your body with your soul.

You do this by turning your body and your physical activities into vehicles to express and fulfill your soul’s mission. Instead of controlling and directing your spiritual life, your material life follows your soul’s desires. The driver directs the vehicle, not the other way around.

The psychological implications of personal fusion between the survival and the transcendental are as life transforming as they are astonishing. Sinai unequivocally states that you do not have to resign yourself to a life of duality.

This does not mean that there is no struggle. Our perception remains one of plurality, clutching us in its powerful grip. And, as we all know too well: The battle is fierce.

This is why we cover our eyes when we say the Shema (the most fundamental of all statements of faith): As we declare “Hashem Echod” – that G-d is one, which means that there is only ONE reality – we cover our naked eyes which deceive us into perceiving a pluralistic universe.

All moments of truth are best experienced with closed eyes; by shutting down the external stimuli of our outer senses, we can experience the pulsating sensuality of our inner senses.

And the way we perceive ourselves affects the way we perceive others and the way we understand the universe at large. In fact, it’s not just a matter of perception. The way we perceive ourselves actually affects others and the world around us. Students of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are familiar with the scientifically proven fact that on a sub-atomic level the “observer” of phenomena is not a mere “observer,”  but actually impacts the “object” he is observing.

Bizarre as it sounds (that is, bizarre to our limited faculties) this has been proven time and again in laboratories around the world.

When you think about it, it actually makes more sense that all aspects of the universe – and our lives – are connected rather than disconnected. But this is yet another demonstration how our external senses hold us hostage in their stubborn, myopic view of a fragmented universe and our lives as a series of random, disjointed experiences.

Close your eyes, listen to a gentle melody, and you will feel (for the moment at least) as one with yourself, one with others, one with the universe – seamless and whole.

When the people arrived at Sinai, they were suddenly taken by a new “music” that surrounded them. All their differences, all their disagreements dissolved in the awesome moment. They became “one human, with one heart.”

As we approach Sinai today, we prepare for our own rendezvous with destiny. On Shavuot, read or listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments. Gather your family, even newborn children and recreate the Sinai experience. Close your eyes. Visualize heaven meeting earth and allow yourself to be absorbed by the symmetry. Help your children relive the experience.

Imagine invisible threads connecting you and your family to all other people; all tiny fibers in a tapestry-matrix woven together from all the cells and atoms of the universe. Let go of the world as you know it and be mesmerized by Sinai fusionism.

When you open your eyes ask yourself:

Who will be in the driver’s seat: Your body and its needs or your soul?

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Catherine Banat
16 years ago

You end this article asking us the question When you open your eyes ask yourself:

Who will be in the driver’s seat: Your body and its needs or your soul?

Isnt this question just more duality? Isnt the question, when you open your eyes can you now feel the unity of your body and your soul?

In my experience, the body provides soul messages and is a vehicle for the soul. It is in listening to my body, including my heart, that I hear my soul. You, yourself, say that when you have an ache or pain, it is a message that something needs tending. So dont we seek to close our eyes to find the connection between the body and the soul, to feel in order to know?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Chaya Gros
13 years ago

Day 38 of the counting of the omer

Well said Rabbi, now if Chabad could only come together we would merit the geula shleima immediately.May we be worthy to be as one people with one heart for real.I remain optimistic it IS possible.

13 years ago

When I read this eloquent, beautiful and so true, piece, I felt the music. I felt, Ruth, you have come home. I see the unitary aspects of Creation constantly, and when I write it is to share this perception because it is overwhelming, a splendor, an uncovering and constant process of discovery I yearn to share. Often I do it with words, because what is unitary would also and is, also, expressed in language across the world, across Babel. The intrinsic ONE within the illusion of separate is the unique ness that makes each of us different, yet essentially one, a part and apart, alone and all one. The angst of this lies with the One ness, of the knowledge we are all part of that One, and the joy of it lies with the merger, and there is this tension of opposites that do move together, and yet, apart.
The wisdom of the ages is contained within your most poetic, beautiful piece of writing!

This is a treasure. Thank you.

13 years ago

BH, dear rav, thank you so much for sharing with us your thoughts! This article is so inspiring! Thank you thousand times!

13 years ago


4 years ago

Anointed reading! And a blessing.Thank you!

Dr. Dan
1 year ago

Dear Teacher, Quantum mechanics teaches impermanence, the universe loses nothing, and no soul. The uncertainty principal and exclusion principle teaches there can be no soul. Perhaps salvation lies within ourselves and the best we can do is be at one with the universe and in harmony with the cosmos. We came from the stars and there we will eventually return. Maybe we achieve calm, peace, and contentment by appreciating what we have: no greed, anger, hate or delusions. Thank you for you kind compassion. Daniel

The Meaningful Life Center