The Community and the Individual

The antagonism and tension that exist everywhere between community and individual are not incidental: they are built into the dialectical relationship between them.

In so many ways, Jewish life is based on the community: there are so many functions for which a minyan – at least ten Jews, namely, a group – is required. The easier option – which is indeed what often happens – is for the community to take over. The community is made up of institutions: a school, a mikveh, a cemetery, a synagogue, a bakery, a kosher restaurant. If successful, it works for the general good; but whatever it does, it always operates, so to speak, in the plural. In so many ways, the community can be said to swallow its members.

This communal aspect also has a glorious side to it. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) says, “Wherever there are ten Jews, the Shekhina– Divine revelation – is also present there.” The Talmud speaks here not only of ten Jews praying or studying Torah together: it speaks of any ten Jews. According to this view, a community is not just a mere social gathering, connecting some people together: it is a glorious entity in itself. In a certain way, the community is – if one may use such an expression – the “body” of God. The Almighty is living within us not as individuals, but as a community.

But after we fulfill the needs of the community, what happens to the individual? What does the individual do, both when within the community and outside of it?

Every individual is, for better or for worse, a different, unique being. The book of Proverbs (14:10) describes this uniqueness in the following words: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not intermeddle with his joy.” No one knows my joys and sorrows like I do.  Even in a community that is a body divine, each one has his own soul, pains, joys.

In our social life there are, then, two different calls: one, to the multitude, to the community; the other, to the individual. In a community, one sometimes tends to forget that a minyan is made up of ten individuals. Similarly, in a major communal gathering, when we fight over who will be elected as President, Vice President, or Deputy Vice President, we sometimes forget that each one of them, too, is an individual, with a life of his own, with a call within that life.

We can learn something about the call to the community and the call to the individual – from Keriat Shema. We may not always be aware of Keriat Shema, but it is a part of what we really are; our existence is built upon it.

The first two portions of Keriat Shema are, in some ways, repetitious; yet there is one major difference between them: the first portion is written in the singular, while the second portion is written in the plural. In other words, the first portion turns to the individual, while the second speaks to the community. The first portion, the one dealing with the individual, speaks about loving God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”. The second portion speaks of you – in the plural – loving God “with all your hearts and with all your souls,” without mentioning the notion of “with all your might”.

To give God “all your heart” means to do things whole-heartedly, to worship God with zest. “With all your soul” means, very simply, with one’s very life. In the course of Jewish history, there were millions of Jewish martyrs, some of them possibly also members of your own families.

But what is “with all your might”? That is very hard to explain and to translate. “With all your might” may mean this: you should give God all your heart and all your life, and then you have to give Him more. That “more” is the essential part of “with all your might”; but what is it? For every person, there is something more precious than life itself. “With all your might” means that additional thing which it is unthinkable to give.

This last demand, however, is made only of the individual, of each and every member of the community. One must remember the individual and keep in mind that all the community functioning and institutions are made up, first andforemost, of individual giving and undertaking, even of individual sacrifice. When that is lacking, no communal work will do any good; for in the final analysis, the community begins and ends with that which the individual can do.

We are now in the month of Elul. Usually people consider this the month of repentance. But repentance is not all that important, and usually it is also not too effective. The month of Elul, then, is not so much about repentance: it is much more about looking in the mirror, looking at myself and trying to find out where am I standing in the world. It is about figuring out: Who am I? Where do I really belong? Where am I now? In Elul we are supposed to meet ourselves, which is so much more difficult than meeting someone else.

And when I do meet myself, a further question arises: What does the individual do within the community? Who is that person? What does he want? What does he do? What can he do? These questions come to structure the community on a different kind of a basis.  A community made up of functions is just like a mathematical equation: a set of abstractions. And how can it be made real? When it is made to stand on the real pillars of the community – namely, the individuals.

A Jewish way of putting it is to say that each of the individuals within the community should be a mentsch. The month of Elul is the time for making sure that we have not missed the first person singular. We need to know not only how many organizers and how many greater and smaller personalities there are in our community: we should wish to know how many mentschen there are there. That is a different way of counting.

The shofar is a very primitive, inarticulate instrument: it is not musical at all. The kind of cry that it emits is the voice of “me,” whoever “me” is, shouting: I am here, I still exist. I may not be of any value, but this primal, coarse voice comes from within me. This sound is the voice that will be recognized after all the words are forgotten. The blowing of the shofar comes to remind people of that most basic, fundamental question: Who are you? What are you going to do? What are you going to do with yourself?

This kind of a cry does not create a community, nor does it create Klal Yisrael. However, it reshapes the community and puts it on a very different basis. Only when a community is made up of a minyan not of twenty legs, but of ten hearts, does it have a good chance of being built in the right way.

This essay is taken from The Seven Lights by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.