By: Shmuel Reichman
An old man had the habit of walking along the beach every morning before he began work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the beach littered with starfish. As he continued further down the shore, he noticed a small boy in the distance, picking up shells from the shore and gently throwing them into the ocean. As he got closer, he realized that this boy was actually walking amongst the thousands of starfish that had been washed up during the storm. As he came across each starfish, he would gently pick it up and throw it back into the ocean.
Amused, the man approached the child and scoffed, “Young boy, why are you doing this? Look at this beach. You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t even begin to make a difference!” The young boy looked down, momentarily crushed. But after a few seconds, he bent down again, picked up another starfish, and with all his might, hurled it into the ocean. He then smiled innocently, looked up at the man, and replied, “I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the boy, intrigued, and after a few minutes he joined him in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and within the hour all the starfish were saved.
Individuality vs. Uniqueness
This story is related to a fundamental question in Judaism. 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, fading into the background. 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 less than one in seven billion, how are we supposed to feel? How are we supposed to feel special and unique in such a world?
Adding to this quandary is the Torah’s conception of community. If everyone is unique and individually important, how can we understand the concept of unity and the need to work towards being part of something bigger than ourselves? Must we sacrifice our individuality and uniqueness for the klal, for the greater good of the community? Many people feel as though Jewish life aims to remove one’s individuality and sense of self, replacing it with uniform commitment to Hashem and Klal Yisrael. What is the deeper Jewish approach to this struggle and conflict between individuality and being part of something bigger than ourselves? Is there some way to balance between the two? This brings us to an important scene in this week’s parsha.
In this week’s parsha, Vayichi, Yaakov Avinu gives each of his sons a bracha while on his deathbed. One might expect Yaakov to leave his children with words of love, positivity, and encouragement. It’s therefore quite shocking to see that many of Yaakov’s “brachos” appear to be exactly the opposite. As we see by Shimon and Levi, some of his brachos even qualify as rebuke and concern. How are we to understand the meaning of this? In order to understand Yaakov’s brachos, as well as the relationship between individuality and community, let us learn about the concept of structure and order based on the ideas of R’ Elyahu 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 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 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’s begin by explaining the first form of order.
The world we live in is structured and ordered. Anyone who learns 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 that Provides Practical Benefits
The second level of order is where the order is structured in such a way that it results in a practical, beneficial consequences. For example, a library is organized in such a way that allows you to have access to a tremendous amount of information, as the order facilitates accessibility. As R’ Elchanan Wasserman famously asks, 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, you’ll have access to nothing. You won’t be able to find a single book. If you have 20 books, you’ll at least have access to each of them. However, if you have a way of organizing the 20,000 books, then of course the 20,000 books are better.
The Highest Order
The third form of order and structure is fundamentally different than the first two; it results when pieces come together in such a way that creates something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s where the parts melt 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. Alone, these components are practically worthless, but when organized in exactly the right way, something emanates from these pieces, a radio signal. This 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. This third type of unity, a unity which transcends the sum its parts, is a deep and fundamental topic. Let us delve into this topic in order to build a paradigm through which we can answer our original questions.
Beauty and Music
When you look at a beautiful sunset on the beach, where exactly is the location of beauty? Is it the sunset? The reflection on the water? The contrast of the beach against the sunset? It’s none of them, and all of them. Beauty is when seemingly contradictory and separate components somehow melt into a oneness, whereby they all bring out something transcendent from within all the other components. This is the deep truth behind physical and spiritual beauty.
The same principle applies to music. Anyone who plays an instrument knows that music is nothing other than a bunch of notes being plucked, one at a time. Each note by itself is not music, it’s just a sound. Music is when the notes are played in the correct sequence, at the perfect tempo, at the right pace; when the musician is able to melt the notes into a melodious oneness, whereby the listener no longer hears the notes, only the music. This is music.
The same is true of a symphony. When you watch a symphony, there are so many different musical instruments, so many different musicians, each one playing their own unique notes. The beauty behind a symphony is when the hundreds of different musicians come together in such a way that all you hear is the symphony; not the violin, not the cello, but the symphony as a whole, as one.
Each Part is Fundamental
Interestingly, in this third form of order, when a single piece from the structure is missing, the entire structure is affected; if a single screw on the radio is missing, the entire radio won’t work; if a single note in the song is missing, the entire melody is affected. However, if a single book is missing from the library, the rest of the library will be just fine. This idea becomes most potently manifest by human genes and DNA. If a single chromosome is missing from an embryo, that child will grow up with extremely severe and unfortunate defects. Just a single chromosome.
This is the deep explanation behind a strange halacha regarding a sefer Torah and mezuzah. If a single letter is missing in either of these, they are deemed passul. Many are confused by this; they don’t understand how a single letter could ruin an entire sefer Torah or mezuzah. However, based on our aforementioned explanation, it should begin to become self-evident. As the Ramban explains in his introduction to his commentary on Bereishis, the entire Torah is an interconnected sefer, it’s one elongated shem Hashem. In other words, it’s a single organic entity. People understand that a single missing chromosome can affect an entire human being; the same is true for a sefer Torah and mezuzah. Since these are organic entities, even a single missing letter can deem the entire text passul. The Rambam echoes this same idea when explaining that if one rejects a single word of the Torah, it is as if he rejected the entire Torah.
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. It’s sometimes referred to as the “lone ranger” syndrome. We want to be the hero, the superstar, to have the spotlight shine solely on us as we save the day. We want to be seen, heard, and understood. We wish to be important, accepted, and cared about. 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.
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 been to a spiritually stirring kumzitz, 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.
So which one is it? 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. To find your uniqueness within the klal, within that which is infinitely greater than yourself. To find your talent, your passion, you 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 be. As we developed in greater length in parshas Lech Lecha, we must first take time to develop ourselves if we wish to have an impact on anyone else. Only once we become self-aware, work on our middos, learn Torah, and start becoming the best person we were meant to become, can we then devote our newfound self to the klal.
Now, we can understand 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. Only once all the brothers came together as one, each filling their role, would they melt together into a oneness, into Klal Yisrael. As we discussed last week, 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 shavatim, 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 a meaningless starfish hidden amongst the masses, 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 in Avos 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 wouldn’t 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.
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