The Individual and the Group

April 25, 2004

6 min read


Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) instructs us in the Mitzvah of imitating God in all His ways. Just as God clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts mourners and buries the dead, so should you emulate His example. Maimonides (Mourning 14:1) mentions all the above Mitzvot, but gives another source: the Torah commandment to "love your friend as yourself."

Why the twofold source for the Mitzvah of performing acts of kindness?

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 24:7) relates:

Rabbi Akiva said, "Love your neighbor as yourself - this is a great rule in Torah." Ben Azzai said, "This is the book of the generations of man ... in the image of God was man fashioned" is a greater rule, for one should not say, 'Since I was shamed, so, too, should my friend be shamed with me. Since I was cursed, so, too, let my friend be cursed with me.' "

Rabbi Akiva, as Hillel before him, saw in the commandment "Love your friend as yourself" the foundation of the entire Torah. The purpose of the entire Torah, Maimonides says (Chanukah 4:14), is to bring peace and harmony to the world, and in order to achieve this, one must conduct himself so that those things which are hateful and repulsive to him are not done to his friend.

Ben Azzai, however, feared rooting a person's conduct toward others in his own subjective feelings and making what is hateful to him the standard for his conduct toward others. There is always a danger that a person might become hardened or insensitive to being shamed or cursed after repeated instances, and thus less sensitive to the need not to humiliate or curse others. Therefore, said Ben Azzai, "in the image of God was man fashioned," is a more all-encompassing source for our duties to our fellow men.


Although both verses seem to apply exclusively to relationships between man and his fellow, Rashi (Talmud - Shabbos 31a) points out that God is also referred to as "your friend" and one must also relate to Him in peace and harmony. In addition, the relationship between one's soul and body must be harmonious. "Love your friend as yourself" thus applies equally to all relationships: between man and God, between man and man, and between man and himself. It thus encompasses the entire Torah.

(Rabbi Akiva agreed with Ben Azzai that an appreciation of the intrinsic worth of the individual is crucial, but felt it was implied in the words "as yourself." A person must first have a proper understanding of his own intrinsic self-worth in order to fulfill the Mitzvah to relate to his friend in a similar fashion.)

There are two reasons for the respect the Torah requires us to show others. One is communal; the other focuses on the individual. The first arises out of the desire to bring peace and harmony to the world; the second because each human being intrinsically deserves the respect and honor befitting one created in the Divine Image. On the one hand, the Torah is concerned with the individual and the development of the Divine Image within him; on the other hand the Torah is concerned with the community, with the social interactions between people.

At times, these two concerns are harmonious: what is good for the individual is good for the community and vice versa. But there are times when these concerns are in conflict, and the individual's needs conflict with those of the community. Sometimes the community must yield to the individual, and sometimes the individual must sacrifice for the community. This balance between individual and community is crucial to a proper observance of the Torah and a development toward perfection.


In Parshat Kedoshim, there are a series of Mitzvot which highlight the importance of the individual, while at the same time not losing sight of the importance of the individual as a part of the community. On the one hand, the community does not become the supreme value, robbing the individual of his intrinsic importance. At the same time, the individual must recognize that he does not exist in a vacuum, that he is a member of society whose actions profoundly affect others.

The Torah exhorts us, "Do not spread gossip." Respect the privacy of the individual. And likewise, "Do not stand by with respect to your friend's blood" - be willing to exert efforts to save the life of a fellow Jew, for every Jew is an entire world.

At the same time, do not lose sight of the equal importance for unity and interaction. Thus, "Do not despise your brother and distance yourself from him by harboring negative feelings in your heart," thereby causing division in the common soul that binds all Jews. Likewise, the Torah continues with a command to recognize our responsibility to others by reproving them when necessary. Do not say: I'll mind my own business; live and let live.' Your fellow Jew is your business.

The command, "Do not take revenge" also forces us to recognize the communal nature of the Jewish people. The Jerusalem Talmud compares taking revenge on a fellow Jew to one who accidentally strikes his left hand while hammering - and then takes the hammer into his bruised left hand and strikes his right hand!


Now we can understand the necessity for two sources in the Torah for deeds of kindness. On the one hand, one must do kindness out of recognition of the intrinsic value of his fellow Jew, who is a reflection of the Divine Image. In addition, one must also consider the ramifications of his actions on society, and do kindness to promote peace and harmony on a communal level.

Both of these aspects are fundamental and crucial to the proper service of Torah. The students of Rabbi Akiva - despite learning from their teacher that loving one another as themselves is the basis of the entire Torah - failed to adequately honor the Divine Image in each other or acknowledge one another as partners in developing society.

Our mourning over their deaths during this period reinforces our recognition of respect for our fellow man as the basis of our relationship with God. We must appreciate our own individual worth as human beings created in God's image, as well as the intrinsic worth of all our fellow Jews. At the same time, we must also recognize the equal importance of the group and our need to unite peacefully and harmoniously into a cohesive community.

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