Who is more important, the Jew or the Jewish people? Is it Reb Yisroel or am Yisroel?
In last week's parshah we read the first chapter of the Shema. This week, we read the second. Yet there are so many similarities between the two. In fact, certain sentences are virtually identical. Why would the Torah, normally so cryptic, be so repetitious?
If one examines the text closely, a significant distinction between the two chapters becomes immediately discernible. The first chapter is in the singular and the second is in the plural. Teach Torah to your son in the first, and to your children in the second. Put tefillin on your hand in the first, and on your hands in the second.
But why the need for both? Why not use one or the other? Why a paragraph for each expression? The answer is that G‑d speaks to the individual, but G‑d also speaks to the community. He addresses the Jew, and also the Jewish People. The first paragraph of the Shema teaches us that each and every single individual is important, even critical, and G‑d addresses every individual personally. The second paragraph reminds us that there is also a sum of all the parts; that together, individuals make up a community. And communities, too, are very important. In some ways, we acknowledge the supremacy of the individual; in others, community is supreme.
Yes, there is a tension at play here. The Talmud captures these seemingly conflicting notions when it examines why humankind was created differently from the animal kingdom. As described in the first chapter of Genesis, animals were created in herds, while only one man and one woman were created initially. Says the Talmud: This is to teach us that a) it was worthwhile for the Almighty to create the world for but a single individual, and b) so that no human being could boast that his or her pedigree is better than anyone else's. We all come from Adam and Eve, so you are no better than me, nor I than you.
Thus, from the very same event, the Torah teaches us this paradoxical lesson: on the one hand, the individual human being is king; while on the other, humanity reigns.
The paradox finds expression in Halachah (Torah law) as well. On the one hand, Torah law rules that we ought not to pay exorbitant ransom monies if an individual is taken hostage; this is to avoid rewarding and encouraging hostage taking, so as to safegaurd the community as a whole: we may save this one individual, but in doing so we increase the danger to the community. On the other hand, Torah law rules that should a dangerous enemy demand that Jewish leaders hand over to them a particular individual lest they attack the entire community, it is not permitted to sacrifice even one individual for the sake of the community.
So we need both sections of the Shema. In Torah, both are paramount, the individual and the community.
Why do I focus on this theme today? Because in approximately five weeks time we will usher in the New Year, and the ongoing tension between the single and plural will manifest itself very blatantly. "Why must we pay to pray?" some will demand. They will decry the shameless commercialism of organized religion. And, yes, a shul should have a heart. And our houses of prayer should not be allowed to become materialistic and mercenary, lest we lose the young, the poor and the idealistic. At the same time, individuals need to be sympathetic to the hard facts of congregational life. We cannot take for granted or take advantage of our established—and costly to maintain—infrastructures. The tension is sometimes tangible as we struggle to balance these two, seemingly exclusive, imperatives of Jewish life.
Statistics vary. In some communities, not more than 30% of Jews are officially affiliated. In others, the figure is much higher. The community must be sensitive, welcoming and embracing of every individual who seeks to belong. Still, individuals must be fair too. If everyone demanded a free ride, how would a congregation support itself?
Let us keep reciting both chapters of the Shema. Then we can look forward to healthy Jews and wholesome Jewish communities.
Please join us for the screening of the movie: Orchestra of Exiles, August 8, at 7:30 pm at the Torah Center, 111 Laurel Place in Westfield, NJ. (no charge)
In the early 1930’s Hitler began firing Jewish musicians across Europe. Overcoming extraordinary obstacles, violinist Bronislaw Huberman moved nearly 1000 great musicians to Palestine and formed a symphony that would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In so doing he guaranteed the survival of Europe’s musical heritage.