Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
In many societies, there has been, over the past few decades, a move away from a sense of communal identity and responsibility towards a more individualistic way of looking at things. Here in Israel, many studies have noted the shift from the use of the plural pronouns – “us”, “our” – towards the use of “me” and “my” in the public arena, both verbally and in print. This is seen as signaling a move away from a society with a high level of group cohesion, commitment to a common goal, and a feeling of “we are all in this together” and towards a more self-centered, perhaps selfish, approach.
Some see this as a good thing, in that it allows for a more personal, independently arrived at, identity and world view, while others see it as the sad end to a sense of communal responsibility and shared destiny. A similar shift was noted in the seventies, with the move from hippie to yuppie culture – the advent of “the me generation” and the end of the sixties’ sense of tribal togetherness. I, personally, see the value in both approaches: I value solidarity and community, but I also think that it is healthy and desirable to be able and willing to think and act independently, with a strong sense of self.
This week’s parsha, Bechukotai, offers us an interesting insight into the values of a shared sense of communal commitment and responsibility, which I’d like to take a look at. The parsha contains a section of blessings that will come to the Jewish people if they follow the Torah, and curses which will befall them if they do not. One of the blessings, which particularly resonates for us today, in terms of the modern state of Israel and its security situation, is this: “And you will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you by the sword. And five of you will chase one hundred, and one hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” The Rabbis point out that the math seems to be wrong: if five Israelites will chase one hundred enemies, then one hundred Israelites should only be able to rout two thousand, not ten thousand. Why the discrepancy?
The Midrash supplies the solution: the discrepancy in the numbers reflects the fact that a small number of people doing the will of the Torah are not the same as a larger number of people doing the will of the Torah. The victorious Israelite soldiers are victorious because they have kept the laws of the Torah. When there are a large number of them, their strength, fortitude, and dedication would seem to be multiplied and enhanced by the fact that there are a lot of them doing the right thing, adding extra impetus to their efforts, beyond the simple calculation of their absolute numbers. That is how the one hundred fighters have the strength to vanquish five times the amount of enemies that their numbers alone would indicate they should be able to: their abilities are multiplied and magnified by the sense of a shared, collective goal and fate, and this empowers them well beyond their numerical strength.
This notion, that being part of a large, communal effort strengthens and inspires one, enables one to do things that would be impossible without the support of a large, robust community of like–minded people, is an important aspect of the argument for a communal world view. We are stronger, better, when we know and feel that we are part of a large, popular effort. We are inspired by the efforts of our fellow citizens, buoyed up by them, and by our sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
As I write, and you read, these words, we are of course mindful of the dangers of being strengthened by the power of large numbers of like-minded people, being swept away by group-think, influenced and emboldened by the power of the crowd, of what everyone thinks and does. Being part of a large number of people all doing the same thing may not always inspire us to be our best.
A solution to this tension may be found in the beginning of the parsha, just a few verses before the section we have looked at, in these opening words: “If in the ways of my laws you walk, and my commandments you keep, and do them, I will give you rain in the right time, and the land will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruits.” The Rabbis question the double language of 'walking in the ways of my laws', and 'keeping the commandments': why state essentially the same thing – if you keep the Torah - twice?
Their answer is, I believe, a balancing factor to the positive approach they take to being part of an empowering collective which we saw earlier in the military numbers game of 100 chasing 10,000. The Rabbis understand “If in the ways of my laws you walk” to be referring not to doing mitzvoth, but, rather, to studying Torah, working at understanding the Torah’s meaning and message. Before you keep God’s commandments, which is, in Judaism, very much a communal affair, you must go in His ways – study His Torah - which is an event that happens, first and foremost, in your head. A commitment to the intellectual rigor, honesty, and openness that the study of Torah demands is the counter-balance to living life as a committed member of a community. The mitzvah to know, to think, to study, to understand, which is the mitzvah of Torah study, is the safeguard against mindless group-think and the tyranny of the collective, and the path to an enlighhtened and thoughtful communal commitment; before we act together, we study together, empowering each of us to think, to question, to challenge. The community's commitment to be a collective of individuals who study, who think, is what allows us to be both communal and individualistic, to benefit from the positive aspects of living in community, as well as developing, through Torah study, a personal relationship with the truth. This is the balancing act which, if done successfully, will, indeed, bring us much blessing.
Rabbi Shimon Felix