The Relationship Between the Individual and the Community

March 1, 2020

6 min read


Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

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When you look out on a vast crowd gathered in an enormous stadium it is important to reflect for a moment that each person who is there - even though they are one of tens of thousands - is a unique individual. This is brought home very powerfully in a blessing which our sages instituted to be said upon seeing a crowd of more than 600,000 Jews: 'Blessed is He who is the wise-knower of secrets.'

The Talmud (Berachot 58a) comments on this:

"...for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other."

We are wowed by the sheer mass of people and moved to express that wonderment to our Creator; yet, in the actual blessing we recite, our sense of wonderment is at the individuality within that crowd. We marvel at the fact that each person is a universe unto themselves, with their own hopes and dreams, joys and concerns, strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities.

To be a Jew is to live as an individual through having a direct, personal relationship with God, with our own unique purpose and mission. But to be a Jew is to also live as part of Klal Yisrael. Klal Yisrael, "the community of Israel", the Jewish collective, is more than just an amalgamation of individuals; it is a living, breathing entity in its own right, a unified whole, in which each is responsible for the other.

Klal Yisrael was cemented at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But this week's parsha, Tetzaveh, includes an important ingredient in the forging of Klal Yisrael. Tetzaveh continues the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary in the desert, which the entire community was involved in establishing, and which, as the central gathering place for connecting to God, was the quintessential communal space. This week we read of the appointment of the Kohanim, the priestly tribe who served in this sacred space.

"And you shall bring close to you, Aaron your brother and his sons with him, from amidst the children of Israel, to serve me" (Shemot 28:1). As the people appointed to perform various tasks in the Mishkan on behalf of the entire Jewish people, the Kohanim were Klal Yisrael's first communal representatives - and a powerful unifying force for the community.

This idea of community building and national unity was personified by Aaron the Kohen Gadol, or "High Priest". The Mishna in Pirkei Avot describes Aaron and calls on us to be his disciples by "loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah" (Pirkei Avot 1:12). The Maharal says that Aharon's drive to pursue peace was part of a wider vision of unifying the Jewish people. He adds that this unifying role extended to bringing unity between Klal Yisrael and God, through the sacred tasks he performed in the Mishkan.

This value of community goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. It is so central to our Jewish identity that the Rambam writes that a person who separates themselves from the community - even though they may live an otherwise morally unimpeachable existence - "has no portion in the world to come" (Hilchot Teshuva 3:11). The Rambam writes that there are two dimensions to community involvement - one is caring for the needs (whether emotional or physical) of one's fellow community members, and the other is performing the mitzvot together as a community. These two ideas are encapsulated in the famous statement of our Sages, "All of Israel is responsible as guarantors for one another."

Being part of a community means looking out for others and taking responsibility for their wellbeing - in the poignant words of the Rambam, "Entering into their troubles". This includes material assistance - practical acts of kindness and support - but also extends to praying for the welfare of others, and having them "top of mind".

But there is also a metaphysical dimension to this idea of Klal Yisrael and the importance of national unity. The Torah describes how "Israel encamped by the mountain" prior to the giving of the Torah (Shemot 19:2). The verb "encamped" is in the singular, even though it refers to the whole nation. Rashi comments that for the purposes of receiving the Torah, the Jewish people had attained a state of harmony, "like one person with one heart." This state of national unity was in fact a prerequisite for receiving the Torah, because the Jewish people were receiving it as a klal, a collective, and not just as individuals. The Ohr HaChaim points out (Shemot 39:32) that no one Jew can fulfil all 613 commandments. Some mitzvot apply only to Kohanim, and others only to Leviim. Some apply only to men, and others only to women. Some apply only to kings, and others only to judges. Some apply only in the fields of agriculture, and others only in the field of battle. And yet, somehow, all of the mitzvot apply to all Jews. How is this possible? How can each person perform the full set of 613 commandments? The answer, says the Ohr HaChaim, is that keeping the mitzvot is a communal, collaborative project. "All of Israel is responsible as guarantors for one another". We are all partners in this cosmic endeavour.

Friends, the connectivity of community applies not only horizontally - to the people within our own generation - it applies also vertically, connecting generations of Jews to each other. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, "…any community dedicated to heaven will endure forever" (Pirkei Avot 4:14). The Talmudic Sages explain that the community referred to here is Knesset Yisrael - the community of Jewish people who stood at Sinai (Avot DeRabbi Natan). Accordingly, the "community dedicated to heaven that will endure" spans more than 3 300 years, dating all the way back from our present generation to the giving of the Torah; "Knesset Yisrael", and indeed, Klal Yisrael, is a single, vertical community rooted in Sinai, that we are all a part of.

Elsewhere in the Gemara, it states that the very first Torah verse a child should learn is, "The Torah was commanded to us by Moses. It is a heritage of the community of Jacob" (Devarim 33:4). The Gemara describes this verse - this idea of a sacred community connected to the Torah - as the very essence of what it means to be a Jew.

Paradoxically, the power of community transforms the individual. We know that Torah is a framework, a Divine blueprint, for self-transformation and attaining personal greatness. Being part of a community - and contributing to that community, helping those in need, enriching the lives of others - is the platform for achieving exactly this state of being.

Giving to others is how we achieve greatness. The Torah says, "And the boy grew up … And Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their suffering" (Shemot 2:10-11). The Maharal explains the repetition of "grew up": the first instance refers to Moshe's physical growth, and the second refers to his growing moral and spiritual stature. Tellingly, the Hebrew word used here is "vayigdal", literally "became big". The act of opening his eyes to the suffering of his brethren enlarged Moshe in a very real sense. He could have remained in the privileged and protected environment of the palace, yet he gave it all up because of a concern for his community.

Being involved in the community - what we refer to in Yiddish as being a Klal Mensch - requires one to achieve a certain self-mastery to be able to engage with others. The Alter of Novardok puts it this way when talking about communal involvement:

"Sometimes the matter requires that a person behave with pride, and sometimes with submissiveness, sometimes with cruelty, and sometimes with compassion … sometimes with modesty and sometimes with publicity, sometimes to teach new things and sometimes to protect old things, sometimes to speak close to the natural inclination and sometimes far from it, sometimes with new, sometimes with old, sometimes with someone who wants, and sometimes where it is against that person's will. Sometimes it is spiritual work and sometimes it is physical work. Sometimes to speak and sometimes to remain silent, everything for the benefit of the thing that is required".

It is indeed a lifelong journey. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains that the soul's journey through the world entails taking on increasing levels of responsibility, and this leads to the soul's perfection - and is its ultimate expression. Essentially, the more we reach out to others, the greater we become. Initially, life is only about meeting one's own needs. Then we graduate from this survivalist state of being; we marry and start a family, assuming greater responsibility, expanding our definition of self, to encompass others. And we continue expanding our world, taking on responsibility for our community, for those around us, for the Jewish people as a whole, and even for the entire world.

Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Skop says that the journey of self-development and spiritual growth entails expanding the concept of "I". A lowly, coarse person sees himself, defines their "I", as purely a physical body. Someone slightly more elevated sees their soul as part of their self-identity. At a higher level, one's identity encompasses one's spouse and children, and then one's community, and so it goes. The more spiritually elevated a person, the more people included in that person's sense of "I".

We see that through community, we enlarge ourselves, and in enlarging ourselves, we enlarge others. That is the simple formula for personal and collective greatness - for realising the perfected world God wants us to create.

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