Countless Torah themes and halachos are centered on the value of the community (tzibbur/klal) and how one must dedicate themselves to the greater good of the Jewish People. If everyone is unique and individually important, how can we understand the concept of unity and the need to work toward becoming part of something bigger than ourselves? Must we sacrifice our uniqueness and individuality for the sake of the “klal,” for the greater good of the community? What is the deeper Jewish approach to this struggle and conflict between individuality and community, between uniqueness and being part of a unified group? In our last article, we began opening up this topic by explaining Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s three levels of order. In this piece, we will delve deeper into this topic in order to build a paradigm through which we can answer these questions on an even deeper level.
Beauty and Music
When you look at a beautiful sunset on the beach, where exactly is the location of beauty? Is it the sunset? The reflection on the water? The contrast of the beach against the sunset? It’s none of them and all of them. Beauty is when separate, seemingly contradictory components somehow melt into a oneness, whereby they each bring out something transcendent from within all the other components. This is the deep truth behind physical and spiritual beauty.
The same principle applies to music. Anyone who plays an instrument knows that music is nothing other than a bunch of individual notes being played, one at a time. Each note by itself is not music; it’s just a sound. Music is when the notes are played in the correct sequence, at the perfect tempo, at the right pace; when the musician is able to string the notes together into a melodious oneness so that the listener no longer hears the notes, only the music. That is music.
The same is true of a symphony. When you watch a symphony, there are so many different musical instruments, so many different musicians, each one playing their own unique notes. The beauty of a symphony is when the hundreds of different musicians come together in such a way that all you hear is the symphony; not the violin, not the cello, but the symphony as a whole, as one.
Each Part Is Fundamental
In our last article, we discussed the highest form of order. In this level of order, pieces come together in such a way that they create something greater than the sum of their parts. It’s where the parts come together into a oneness in a way that creates something that transcends the parts themselves.
An identifying characteristic of this form of order is that when a single piece from the structure is missing, the entire structure is affected. This is because each piece is intrinsic and fundamental. If a single screw in the radio is missing, the entire radio won’t work; if a single note in the song is missing, the entire melody is affected. However, if any books are missing from the library, the rest of the library will be unaffected. This idea is most potently clear in its application to human genes and DNA. If a single chromosome is missing from an embryo, the child will unfortunately grow up with extremely severe defects. All of this from one missing chromosome.
This is the deep explanation behind a cryptic halachah regarding Sifrei Torah and mezuzos. If a single letter is missing from either, the Sefer Torah or mezuzah is rendered pasul (invalid). Many are confused by this. How can a single letter ruin an entire Sefer Torah or mezuzah? However, based on our discussion about the third level of order, the answer becomes clear. As the Ramban explains in the introduction to his commentary on Bereishis, the entire Torah is one interconnected sefer, one elongated shem Hashem (Name of G-d). In other words, it’s a single organic entity. People understand that a single missing chromosome can affect an entire human being; the same is true for a Sefer Torah or mezuzah. These are organic entities, shaped by the third level of order, so even a single missing letter renders the entire text pasul. The Rambam echoes this same idea when explaining that if one rejects a single letter of the Torah, it is as if he rejected the entire Torah (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 3:8).
Our entire universe is comprised of smaller parts that combine into a oneness to create larger structures. Just think about your own body: Electrons, protons, and neutrons come together to create elements; elements come together to create organelles; organelles come together to create cells; cells come together to create organs; organs come together to create organ systems; organ systems come together to create human beings; man and wife come together to create a family; families come together to create communities; communities come together to create Klal Yisrael; all of humankind come together to create humanity; all life forms come together to create life on Earth; all matter on Earth comes together to create Planet Earth; all our planets come together to create our galaxy; all galaxies come together to create our universe. Hashem transcends everything and yet is within and connected to everything in our universe. Our universe is a combination of individual components, and what emanates from, and transcends, those components.
Individuality vs. Community
This brings us back to our original question, wherein we find a conflict between our own individual sense of uniqueness, and the fact that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. On the one hand, we each have a deep desire to be unique, to stand out. What is sometimes referred to as the “lone ranger” syndrome, we all have the desire to be the hero, the superstar, to have the spotlight shine solely on us as we save the day unaided. We have a sense of unique purpose, we know that we were created for a specific reason, and we know that we have talents and gifts that no one else in the world possesses. We want to be seen, heard, and understood. We wish to be important, accepted, and cared about.
On the other hand, we simultaneously understand that this world is not only about “me.” We are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves. Looking at the night sky, we can’t help but feel ourselves shrink into nothingness, realizing just how small we truly are. We are part of a plan, a grand cosmic story, which expands far beyond the borders of our own individual life. And strangely enough, we actually enjoy experiences where we melt into the background of something infinitely bigger than ourselves. If you’ve ever been to a stirring kumzitz (group singing), with the lights off and the music playing, you know how spectacular it feels to be nothing, to neither be heard or seen as an individual, nor to see or hear anyone else. All you hear is the collective echoing of hundreds of voices pouring out their souls; all you see is shadows and oneness.
Which one of these desires is truly important; which one do we most strongly crave? Do we prefer to be unique, to focus on our individuality and uniqueness, to stand out from the crowd? Or, do we prefer to be part of the crowd, to find ourselves sewn within the fabric of the klal, to hide within that which is infinitely greater than ourselves?
The Ideal: Synthesis
The ideal is to synthesize both. Klal Yisrael is a nation shaped by the third level of order. Each of us is completely unique and intrinsic, but only when we are connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael, living with a higher purpose. The ideal is to find your uniqueness within the klal, within that which is infinitely greater than yourself; to find your talent, your passion, your gift, and then wholeheartedly devote that to Klal Yisrael, to the world. We need to ask ourselves: how can my uniqueness contribute to the Jewish People and the world as a whole? Then, we must turn the focus of our life toward actualizing our unique potential, toward becoming the person we were meant to become.
Our Unique Role
We must determinedly search for our own uniqueness but then strive to fully devote that uniqueness to the klal, to that which transcends our limited selves. Our true greatness lies in finding our greatness within that which is greater than ourselves. We must not think of ourselves as meaningless and hidden amongst the masses, an unimportant soul lost in the crowd. Each of us is unique, each of us important; but our true importance lies within the deep understanding of how we can fit into what is greater than ourselves. The Mishnah says that we must each consider as if the world was created for us (Sanhedrin 37a.). The deep explanation behind this is as follows: each of us plays a unique role in this cosmic symphony we call life. Just as every screw in the radio is fundamental, and a single missing screw renders the entire radio obsolete, so too, each of us is fundamental, and without us, the story of our world would not be complete. Each of us is a letter in the ultimate Sefer Torah, a word in the story of life. We must write our own story, with the recognition that our story is part of a bigger story, His-tory, our story.