Parshat Yitro: United Before Mt. Sinai

Facing the Mountain

Parshat Yitro describes the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. When the Jewish people arrived before Mt. Sinai the Torah states,1

On the third month of their exodus from the land of Egypt, on this day, they came to the Sinai desert. They traveled from Repheedim, they entered the Sinai desert, they camped in the desert; Israel encamped there facing the mountain.

In the final phrase, "Israel encamped there facing the mountain," the Torah uses the singular form of the verb "to camp" (וַיִּחַן ) even though a few words earlier it used the more natural plural form, "they camped" (וַיַּחֲנוּ ). The sages explain that unlike all their other encampments, this time the Jewish people were united like a single individual with one heart (meaning, a singular purpose). For this reason, this phrase is always quoted as a symbol of Jewish unity.2

The two-letter root of the verb "to camp" is חן , which in Hebrew means “grace” (חֵן ). This word also means “symmetry.” In a symmetrical figure, the two sides face one another.

Egypt United

The unity that the people experienced while facing the mountain on which the Torah would be given came to rectify a similar situation in which they were facing the Egyptians on the sea. There, the Torah also uses the singular, “And behold, Egypt was chasing them….” Not “the Egyptians,” but “Egypt,” indicating that the Egyptians too, in their attempt to capture the Jewish people were united like a single individual with a single heart. In the Talmud, the sages teach us that “the gathering (unity) of the wicked is bad for them and awful for the rest of the world, while the gathering of the righteous (tzadikim) is beneficial to them and a benefit for the entire world.”

Mind and Heart

How can we tell the difference between the unity of the wicked and the unity of the righteous? Regarding the wicked, it says that their unity is, “with one heart, like one man.” The heart precedes the man, i.e., the mind, the intellect. The wicked unite in order to follow their heart, to attain what their hearts desire. The heart is the natural dwelling place of the animal soul and all its cravings (as explained in the Tanya). But, about the unity of the righteous, it says that they gather, “Like one man, with one heart.” Their mind, their intellect and Divine soul, precedes and guides their heart, their natural proclivities.

Moreover, the Egyptians—representing the wicked—attained unity during their impulsive pursuit of the Jewish people. The Jewish people—representing the righteous—reached a state of unity when in a state of peaceful rest in their camp (after having returned to God in their hearts, as Rashi explains in his commentary on the previous verse). The encampment, which we saw before stems from the two-letter root meaning “grace” or “favor” (חֵן ) implies that the unity of the righteous is based on their finding favor in one another’s eyes. In other words, they simply enjoy one another and each other’s company. But, the wicked cannot come together without an impulsive drive to achieve some goal. Even when they are running together, they do not feel love for one another.

From Rest to Movement

Still, once the righteous have achieved unity in their restful state of “encampment” (וַיִּחַן ), they have to begin moving and pursuing a goal together. The two letters of the two-letter root of "to camp" (חֵן ) are the initials of these two words, “encampment” (חַנַיָה ) and “movement” (נְסִיעָה ). They are also the initials of the two roots of the words chassid (חָסִיד ) andmitnaged (מִתְנַגֵד ), the disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Jew who still opposes (to whatever extent) the Ba’al Shem Tov’s way. Thus, these two are destined to find favor, to find grace in each other’s eyes.

Mathematical Analysis

Let us see a few gematriot regarding this notable last phrase.

The full phrase describing the encampment before Mt. Sinai reads, “Israel encamped there, facing the mountain” (וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר ). The gematria of these words is 1222, or twice 611, the gematria of “Torah” (תוֹרָה ), implying the unification of the Written Torah with the Oral Torah. 1222 is also the product of 26 and 47, or Havayah (י־הוה ) andHavayah Ekyeh (י־הוה א־היה ), a beautiful unification of these two Names of God.

The first two words, “encamped there” (וַיִּחַן שָׁם ) equal 414 or twice the value of “light” (אוֹר), 207. 414 is also therefore the value of “the infinite light” (אוֹר אֵין סוֹף ), since “light” (אוֹר ) equals “the infinite” (אֵין סוֹף ). It is also the value of the phrase, “source of life” (מְקוֹר חַיִים ) and the word “And you shall love” (וְאָהַבְתָּ ), which begins the first paragraph of the Shema.3

Just the words, “facing the mountain” (נֶגֶד הָהָר ) equal 267, or “chariot” (מֶרְכָּבָה ), alluding to the secret of the Divine Chariot.

Together 414 and 267 (וַיִּחַן שָׁם נֶגֶד הָהָר ) equals 681, or 3 times “blessing” (בְּרָכָה ), alluding to the threefold blessing of the Torah, the Priestly Blessing. Additionally, 681 is the value of “trumpet [or shofar] blast” (תְרוּעָה ), inherent in which is the power of unification—the sound of the shofar and the trumpet causes our attachment to the material and mundane to shatter, as in the verse, “Sound the trumpet for Havayah, all the land.”

Finally, the gematria of the first, middle, and last letter of the phrase “Israel encamped there, facing the mountain” (וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר ) is 406, or 28 (read: the triangle of 28, the sum of integers from 1 to 28). 406 is also 7 times “grace” (חן ), alluding to the 7 types oftzadikim that will greet the Divine Presence.4

(based on the lecture given on 11 Shevat 5769)


1. Exodus 19:1-2.

2. See our article on Love and Unity.

3. See our article on Love and Fear.

4. See Vayikra Rabbah 30:2.

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