On the one hand, we all believe that we are unique and special. On the other hand, we sometimes struggle to experience our individuality, feeling almost lost in the crowd. If you’ve ever walked the streets of a crowded city, surrounded by thousands of people walking in different directions, you may have felt almost invisible. We live on a planet with over seven billion people; planet Earth itself is a speck in the universe. If our planet is so infinitesimally small relative to the universe, and within our planet, each of us is only one of more than seven billion people, how are we supposed to feel special and unique?
Compounding this difficulty is the Torah’s emphasis on unity and community. Countless Torah themes and halachos (laws) are centered around 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 towards 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? Many feel as though Judaism aims to remove one’s individual identity and sense of self, instead training us to be a uniform group of people, solely committed to Hashem and Klal Yisrael. 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 Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu gives each of his sons a bracha (blessing) before his death. One might expect Yaakov to leave his children with words of love, positivity, and encouragement. It is therefore quite surprising to see that many of Yaakov’s “brachos” appear to be exactly the opposite. His words for Shimon and Levi seem to qualify as outright rebuke. How are we to understand the meaning of this? In order to grasp the meaning behind Yaakov’s brachos, as well as the relationship between individuality and community, let us study the concepts of order and structure, based on the ideas of Rav Eliyahu Dessler.
Levels of Order
Rav Eliyahu Dessler, a prominent 20th century Jewish thinker and author of Michtav M’Eliyahu, writes about three different levels of order.
The first is order for the sake of order, which is a practical form of order, where pieces simply come together in an orderly, organized structure.
The second is where the pieces within a structure are organized in such a way that it provides practical use and accessibility.
The third is where the pieces within the structure come together in such a way that the ensuing result transcends the sum of the parts.
Let us explore each form of order in further depth.
The world we live in is exquisitely structured and ordered, down to the finest details. Anyone who has studied physics, biology, or chemistry has gotten a taste of the beauty and sophistication of our world’s order. Every human being has an inner order, which allows our bodies to maintain homeostasis. The order of our world has many important implications and applications as well.
Order for Practical Benefit
The second level of order is where something is ordered in such a way that it yields practical benefits. For example, a library is organized in such a way that gives one access to a tremendous amount of information; the order facilitates this accessibility. Rav Elchanan Wasserman asked, is it better to have 20,000 books or 20 books? While many are quick to say 20,000, the answer is not so simple. It actually depends; do you have an organizing index? If you have 20,000 unorganized books, they will be nearly useless. You won’t be able to find a single book you are looking for. With the 20 books, you will at least have access to each of them. However, if you have a system of organization for the 20,000 books, then of course it is better to have 20,000 books.
The Highest Order
The third form of order and structure is fundamentally different from the first two; 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 which transcends the parts themselves. In neurobiology and physics, this would be referred to as “emergent phenomena”.
Take a radio for example; it is composed of numerous parts and components which, on their own, are practically worthless. However, when these same pieces are organized in exactly the right way, something emanates from them: a radio signal. This type of order is completely different from the first two forms of order. When a library is organized, you are still left with nothing more than the books on the shelves; and when the library is disorganized, each book still maintains its individual value. However, within this third level of order, each individual piece is worthless when all the pieces are not unified, and transcendent when the pieces are organized properly and connected.
Individuality and 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 unaidedly save the day. We have a sense of unique purpose, we know that we were created for a specific reason, 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 musical 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 towards actualizing our unique potential, towards becoming the person we were meant to become.
We can now understand the meaning behind Yaakov’s brachos. If we analyze them closely, we begin to realize that Yaakov wasn’t simply blessing his children, he was showing each of them their unique purpose, their unique mission. Each of the brothers had their own unique talents, and their unique roles reflected these unique talents. In the case of Shimon and Levi, Yaakov was helping them see their character traits, their strengths and weaknesses. Only by fully understanding who they were, and their unique middos, would they be able to fulfil their unique role within Klal Yisael.
When all the brothers come together as one, each filling their role, they melt together into a oneness, into Klal Yisrael. As we previously discussed, this is what the brothers expressed when they declared “Shema Yisrael” on Yaakov’s deathbed; they were declaring their oneness as a collective whole. Not only were they great as individuals, but they united into a cohesive and harmonious collective. Just like “Hashem echad”, Hashem is one, so too we, Klal Yisrael, are one.
Our Unique Role
As descendants of Yaakov and the shevatim, Yaakov’s brachos must echo resoundingly in our ears; he was speaking to each and every one of us as well. 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 mustn’t think of ourselves as meaningless, or as 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 that which is greater than ourselves. The Mishna says that we must each consider as if the world was created for us. 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.