Individualism vs. Collectivism

Thursday, 18 October, 2018 - 3:40 pm

As Torah narratives go, we are in the exciting part of the cycle. After getting through with the preliminaries of creation and the flood, we are finally all in on the inspired and inspiring life of Avraham. A recurring theme is the promise of a great nation of descendants coupled with the gifting of the land (of Israel).

A closer peek gives us two distinct forms in which the blessing of plentiful offspring is offered. 1. Your children will be as numerous as the sand near the sea. 2. Your descendants will be as plentiful as the starts in the sky. Aside from diversity of linguistic expression, what is gained by the two metaphors of the sand and the stars?

One of the Chassidic masters explained that each of these represents a different angle with respect to the tension between collectivism and individualism. Sand is valuable primarily when it is bunched together with more sand. The sand can form a beach, mud, glass, computer chips etc. A single granule of sand is hardly useful. This brings out the value of the collective. When we are united, pooling our efforts and resources, we are invincible.

Contrast that with the stars. Each one is a powerful source of light and energy on its own. Indeed two stars coming together can be a destructive force. This brings out the value of individuality.

Which approach is correct? Does Judaism favor the collective or the individual? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Judaism calls for a balance between collectivism and individuality. There are times when a tip in one direction or another is called for, but a healthy balance is the proper approach.

Here is proof from a Halachic phenomenon with a philosophical and mystical twist. A Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters, each handwritten in black ink on parchment. If a single letter is missing or deformed, the entire scroll is unfit for use. Additionally, each of the letters must be ringed by “white space.” Should a letter touch its fellow even slightly, thereby violating the "white space" between them, again, the entire scroll is disqualified from use.

Every Jew is a letter in G‑d's scroll. The people of Israel comprise a single, interdependent entity; the lack or deformity of a single Jewish soul, G‑d forbid, would spell a lack or deformity in us all. Yet equally important is the inviolable "white space" which distinguishes each of us as a unique individual. True, the letters spell a single integral message. But this message is comprised of hundreds of thousands of voices, each articulating it in its own manner. To detract from the individuality of one is to detract from the integrity of the collective whole.

This is one of the messages of the stars and sand.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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