Me versus we
Who is more important, the Jew or the Jewish people?
In last week’s parsha, we read the first chapter of the Shema. This week, we read the second. Yet, there are many similarities between the two. Certain sentences are virtually identical. Why would the Torah, normally so cryptic, be so repetitious?
If one examines the text, we see a clear distinction between the two chapters. The first 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? The answer is that G-d speaks to the individual, but also to the community. He addresses the Jew, and the Jewish people. The first paragraph teaches us that every single individual is important, even critical, and so 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 indispensable.
A community isn’t only a motley collection of disparate individuals. A community is an important entity in its own right. In some ways, a community is supreme; in others, we acknowledge the supremacy of the individual. And, yes, there is a tension at play here.
More than 800 years ago, Maimonides ruled that communal leaders were obliged to safeguard the community, and ought not to pay exorbitant ransom monies if one of its members was taken hostage. However, should a dangerous enemy demand that Jewish leaders hand over to them a particular individual lest they attack the entire community, it’s not permitted to sacrifice even one individual for the sake of the community.
So we need both sections of the Shema, because both are important, the individual and the community.
COVID-19 has taught us the supreme preciousness of every soul. We closed all our shuls to save even a single life. But it also taught us how much we need our community. Yes, we survived without our congregations all this time. But we are missing the shul experience and craving our communal connections. The explosion of Zoom shiurim and events is inspirational, but it only confirms how much we really need each other.
According to the recently released survey on South African Jewry, 57% of Jews are affiliated to a synagogue. Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us. Our shuls have been battered by this pandemic. We need the other 43% to step up to the plate, and of course, committed families must stay the course.
The tension between looking after ourselves and our community has never been more tangible as we struggle to balance these two, seemingly exclusive, imperatives of Jewish life.
Let us keep reciting both chapters of the Shema. Then we can look forward to healthy individuals and wholesome communities.