Me, you and us
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Senior Rabbi, Sydenham Shul
In last week’s parsha 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 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.
A community is not 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. So, yes, there is a tension at play here.
Over 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 is 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.
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 organised religion.
Of course, 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 per cent 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 or a community support itself?
Let us keep reciting both chapters of the Shema. Then we can look forward to healthy Jews and wholesome communities.