Dear Rabbi Fried,
In Judaism, is a person considered most important as an individual, or is the individual not important in his own right and the main importance is as part of the Jewish people? We’ve had this discussion in our havura group and would all like to have your opinion.
Natalie and Joseph W.
Dear Natalie and Joseph,
Often, with rabbis, the answer to an either/or question is yes. The most important view of a Jewish person is as an individual, and at the same time it is as part of the whole, of klal Yisrael. (This may sound a bit like the two men in dispute and the rabbi in his study. The Rabbi told the first man, after presenting his arguments, “You’re right.” The second man, after presenting his side, was told “You’re right.” The rabbi’s wife, overhearing from the kitchen, entered and asked how they could both be right. The rabbi told her, “You know, you’re right.”)
On one hand, we are taught by the Torah that every individual is inimitable. Every Jewish soul is unique; its roots are from a distinctive place in the spiritual realm. In the words of the Kabbalistic teachings, each Jewish soul has a one-of-a-kind connection to a letter of the Torah, in a way that no other Jew ever had or will have in all history. This means to say that every Jew has the ability to accomplish something special in the world that no other ever could. That is the person’s distinctive mission in the world, and their potential place in history. This is the meaning of a short prayer recited at the end of the Amidah prayer, where we ask “…and give us our portion in the Torah.” The emphasis is on “our” portion, our unique and specific portion as individuals.
On the other hand, an individual can be quite insignificant. It can be quite daunting when one considers the smallness of each one of us compared to the world, and especially compared to the entire universe. It has been calculated that if Grand Central Station was filled completely with dust, Earth would represent only one speck of that dust compared to the rest of the universe. Then imagine billions of tiny beings on that one speck of dust. Any one of us is only one of the billions of insignificant semi-specks of dust. When, however, one of us melds our individual, unique powers into the greater whole, into the klal, our distinctive powers take on cosmic significance, affecting the entire universe which was brought into existence for a purpose.
Consider a seemingly insignificant, small screw in an automobile’s carburetor. When it falls out on a hot desert road and the car shuts down, suddenly its vital importance as part of the total system of the car becomes apparent. This is despite the relative insignificance of the same screw when looked at for its own inherent value, when not needed as part of the workings of a car.
In the same way, despite the uniqueness of any given individual, that exclusivity would evaporate and move off the world stage forever if not for the person finding the way to use his individuality as part of the larger team. One example of this in the Torah is the mode of travel of the Jewish people in the desert was with degalim, or banners. Each tribe had its special banner, which reflected the unique spiritual mission of that tribe. With their banners, each tribe had a particular place around the Tabernacle, which traveled in the center. Only when all banners were present in their proper place could klal Yisrael travel with their full glory and purpose.
Through Torah study we are taught how each individual should find and actualize their unique mission while at the same time melding themselves into the larger klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,