Can Individuality And Unity Coexist?
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL.
One day when walking across a bridge, I encountered a man who was about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do that!”
“Why not,” he asked. “Well, there’s so much to live for.” I replied.”Like what,” he asked.
“Well…are you Jewish,” I asked. “I’m Jewish,” He said. “Me too, I replied.
“Are you Orthodox or Reform?” He said “Orthodox.” I said, “Me too. Are you Charedi or Modern?” He said “Charedi.” I said, “Me too!
“Are you Litfish or Chassidish? “He said “Litfish.” I said, “Wow! Me too.”
Are you Litfish Yerushalmi or Litfish Bnei-Braker?” He said “Litfish Yerushalmi.” I said “Me too!
“Are you Litfish Yerushalmi Mussarnik, or are you Litfish Yerushalmi Brisker?” He said “Litfish Yerushalmi Mussarnik” I said, “Imagine that! Me too!
“Are you Litfish Yerushalmi Mussarnik Slobodker, or Litfish Yerushalmi Mussarnik Kelmer?” He said “Litfish Yerushalmi Mussarnik Slobodker!”Apikores (heretic) that you are!” I shouted, and proceeded to push him off the bridge.
“Unity,” what a beautiful thing. Its virtuous qualities are echoed by politicians and clergymen as well as leaders, activists and ordinary folk of all ilk and class. The word conjures up fuzzy images of an idyllic state of existence – a world in which there is no strife – where humanity is bound by a single objective and a single mind and heart.
But is unity a real concept, or is it a wishful fantasy? Can humanity actually come together, with a single heart and mind towards any single objective?
We humans are so different from one another. We possess extremely diverse desires, inclinations, interests and taste. This is not only because of our selfish and animal nature and agenda, which, to be sure, can take due credit for our propensity towards disagreement and contention. But our very minds tend to operate on different frequencies by mere biological design.
No, we humans do not think alike, nor were we meant to. The Talmud states: “Just as no two people are identical in image, so are no two people identical in their way of thinking.” Each of our brains is wired somewhat differently, and that’s how it was meant to be. Given the above can we even dream of unity and single mindedness?
The current political atmosphere is a perfect case in point. America has become so pulverized by the intense nature of the prevailing political landscape. Feelings run so deep; it is causing strife and even hatred amongst fellow citizens.
Neither has the Jewish community been spared the friction associated with the intense political divide. There is enormous contention and discord within all segments of the Jewish community over the contested national issues. We cannot even agree on what’s best for Israel and our Jewish values and interests, let alone the plethora of other matters. The prevailing political atmosphere is not a shining example of man’s capacity for tolerance and accord.
Yet, Judaism maintains that unity is not only a desirable and attainable trait but actually a necessity and prerequisite for Divine revelation and blessing. How is this possible? If I’m for healthcare reform and you are vehemently opposed to it, how can we be united?
The answer is that Unity does not dictate or require that everyone believe or act the same, or agree with each other, for that matter. Quite the contrary, unity by definition exists in light and in spite of our unique individuality and differences.
This is to say that we need not deny the reality of our (or anyone else’s) individuality in order to be united. Not only do we all have the “right” to be distinct in our behavior and thought, it is in fact very much part and parcel of the Divine design of the human mission.” Is it not G-d, after all, who created us so different and distinct from each other? As one wife told her husband: “If we would always think alike, then one of our minds would be superfluous and unnecessary!”
We must, accordingly, not try to silence those who disagree with us or badger them into accepting our viewpoint or will. Most importantly, our differences of opinion and views do not constitute just grounds for animosity and hate.
So, you ask, where lies the unity in this philosophy? While the notion of “agree to disagree” is very benevolent, it does not seem to symbolize unity. If anything, it is the antithesis thereof. Can individuality and unity coexist, and how so?
Unity is the ability to master and harness our individuality and diversity towards a common and higher objective. Rather than to “deny” them, it is to “unite” them – to utilize them as a means towards a higher end, not as the end of a higher means.
In practical terms, this means that we allow ourselves to be bound together by that which is higher than ourselves – higher than our individuality and diversity. For true unity to exist there must be the recognition of higher (Divine) morals and principles for which we are willing to yield our individual mind and heart.
Much as you don’t create light by beating-out the darkness with a stick, but rather by lighting a candle, you don’t create unity by beating-out your opponent’s individuality and point of view – a tactic that failed miserably throughout history – but rather by emphasizing and accentuating the higher morals and values which are greater than our individuality and separateness.
This is precisely what the Torah asserts in the beginning of Parshas – Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double portion: “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your G-d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
While the Torah emphasizes the awesome unity that prevailed among the people at that historic gathering – on the day of Moshe’s passing – it does not gloss-over the distinct different classes and categories that comprised the legendary assembly. Yes there was perfect unity and individuality at the same moment – leaders, elders, officers, children, women, converts, woodcutters and water drawers, all with their own unique beliefs and way of thinking.
How was this possible? The answer is because they were “All standing this day before the Lord, your G-d.” they were cognizant of a higher existence and creed – “The covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day.”
In face of higher reality and purpose, our individuality and diversity are fused together – they become complementary of each other like the sundry instruments in a symphony.
The following is a charming little thought which I recently came across: As we all know, there are minor variations in the text of our prayers. In the Shacharis (morning) service, there is for example, a difference in the order of the first prayer. Chassidim say Hodu before Baruch She-amar, while Misnagdim say it after. However, before the prayer of Yehie Ch’vod Hashem – which translates: “May the glory of G-d [be forever]” – both groups find themselves aligned.
The point here is that when it comes to the glory of G-d, both Chassidim and Misnagdim – different as their ideas may be – find themselves on the same page. This, as stated above, is precisely the message of our Parsha – unity is attained through higher awareness and commitment.
Among the numerous factors taken into account by our Sages when they arranged the Jewish calendar, is when each Torah portion will be read. Not only was the goal to complete the cycle of reading the Torah by the last days of the holiday of Sukkos, but also to make sure certain portions of the Torah would be read at particular times of the year.
Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbos preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment of all mankind. This gives the abovementioned point even deeper relevance. The words in our Parsha: “You are all standing this day before the Lord ‘this day,’” according to Chassidic philosophy, also refers to the day of Rosh Hashanah.
The message, accordingly, is that by standing together “this day” of Rosh Hashanah – through true Jewish unity, as described above – we all merit Divine revelation and blessing. We are certain to be inscribed and sealed for a happy, healthy and sweet New Year. May this be the case for us all.