There is a fundamental conflict in life between individualism and collectivism. Does the individual view himself as independent of the collective, free to pursue his own personal ambitions and hopes without thinking about the well-being of the community, or should each person view himself as part of the collective, sacrificing personal pleasures for the sake of communal advancement.
Both of these terms have their roots in nature. Individualism can be seen in the loners of the wild − the tiger, the leopard, sharks and even beetles. They live their lives as loners, seeking companionship only for procreation. Their worlds are lonely but self-fulfilling as they come and go as they please; they fight off foes when necessary and pursue their basic needs when they desire.
Collectivism can best be seen in bees and ants. Each individual creature is merely a cog in the great machine that is the hive or the mound. Communal survival is the key.
Humanity has always teetered between these two movements. Sometimes we tend towards individualism, such as in modern capitalist societies, at other times towards collectivism, such as in communist and socialist societies, or in times of war.
Judaism similarly struggles with these concepts. On the one hand there is the idea that every soul is of infinite value, that Hashem loves each of us and that providence, divine attention, is focussed also on the individual and not only on the collective.
On the other hand, we believe in communal responsibility and share a collective identity and destiny.
Is there a role for individuality within the collective?
We all try to be different, act differently and dress differently in an attempt to show off our uniqueness, the personal touch that distinguishes us from others. In fact, we often look condescendingly at communities that standardise dress or behaviour as suppressing the individual. Although there may be truth to this sentiment, at times our perceived differences are only superficial. We often buy into the collective narrative and suppress our real uniqueness.
We all look different but we all think the same. Perhaps real individualism necessitates that we all think differently, even though we may look the same.
In this week’s Parsha we read of the inauguration of the tabernacle through the 12 princes of Israel. The Torah details each of the twelve sacrifices, literally a twelve-fold repetition. Why not just write that each of the princes brought the same as the one who preceded him? Twelve sets of ditto marks?
One suggestion is that although they superficially looked identical, they were intrinsically different. Each experience was, for each prince, different. I may pray the same Amida as you do, but our experiences are different.
Real differences are nuanced rather than blatant. External differences are often superficial attempts to obscure conformity. Our real difference is on the inside.