A Man Alone, and in Community

“Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman…

So begins a short story by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. In it, the character of the Harlequin is effectively “chased down” by the unrelenting Ticktockman. I am not prepared to critique this short story, nor am I able to determine all the symbolism intended by Ellison. What I do recall from reading this story is the powerful sense of how the modern world grinds down the precious individuality and integrity of life.

The story resonates because we have all internalized the sense of the modern world taking away the thing that makes us most essential.

Schools, which identify us not by our names but by our student identification numbers. Bureaucracies in which we simply don’t exist except by Social Security numbers. Vast subway systems in which seeming automatons push through the turnstiles, filling nondescript subway cars in which we look down at our feet rather than risk catching the eye of another person.

“I am a father!”

“I am a student!”

“I am a nurse!”

We want to cry out that we are individuals of worth and value. But the modern world seems not to care. The modern world, particularly in a great urban setting such as New York City, quickly challenges any sense of individuality, uniqueness and b’shvili nivra haolam. Such a sense of self vanishes the skyscrapers rising forty and more stories into the sky.

“Who am I?” one wonders. There are thousands, millions, of others in those buildings. Who could “get to know” so many neighbors! And, without knowing my closest neighbors, who am I indeed?

Modern man is depersonalized and marginalized. He has become the sum of his statistical probabilities rather than a breathing, caring, emotive being.

In this vast impersonal-ness how does one find his individuality and a community to embrace him?

What a unique being we are! For we require both our individuality and our belonging. One without the other and we are less than we were meant to be. Too much individual and we become selfish and demanding; too much “community” and our individual selves are lost in the noise of the modern world.

Where is the balance?

Let us consider now a minyan? Ten individuals. One group. The yid is both an individual and at the same time fully part of a larger collective. One individual, singular and exclusive among ten other singular and exclusive “ones”.

Should one yidele be absent, the minyan cannot address God in full glory and shevach; we may not recite any davar sh’bekdusha. 

“When a corpse is found fallen in the field in the land God is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who the murderer is. Your elders and judges must go out and measure… The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it.”

Torah law does not allow for an individual to be left to his own fate. Every individual member of a community must be embraced by the community and by its leadership. The community as a whole is responsible for the fate of each individual, his well-being, safety, and security.

Rashi calls our attention to the obvious question – Would anyone ever imagine or suggest that the elders, righteous, moral, and pious, would have murdered this strange passerby? The simple answer is, No. But it is not the action that is being considered. It is that the tone and attitude of a community are defined by the leadership. The way we relate to an individual and his needs filters down from on high. Elah lo reinuhu upatrenuhu belo melonot u’blo levaya (Sota 45)

A group, a community that does not react strongly, and expeditiously to monstrous acts is a society whose leadership is oblivious to the fate of the individual. A society which remains silent as millions are exterminated is a society with bloodied hands.

So too, a society whose leaders look the other way when its most innocent members, its children, are made vulnerable. Have we not heard too much about leaders of religious communities turning a blind eye to the predators in their midst? No group can be blameless. The Jewish community too must do everything in its power to protect both physically and emotionally the most precious amongst us, the children. There can be no excuse or rationalization for those who prey upon our most glorious promise and possession.

Children, indeed all individuals are safe, secure, and sound only as long as their leaders are concerned about their personal, physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological protection and security.

Our parasha begins with the words: Shoftm veshotrim titen lecha “judges and bailiffs shall you appoint in all of your gates.” The emphasis is on the singular. Lecha. For you. Only when the rights, liberties and privileges of individuals are protected and secured do the judges become the legitimate leaders of a Jewish community.

The Likutei Yehuda points out that genuine and authentic leadership represented by the shoftim follows the theme of the festivals (at the end of Re’eh) which incorporates the concern for the underprivileged; the orphan, widow and ger. This is no mere coincidence. Wherever the Torah speaks of mishpat, it simultaneously teaches about tzedakah. (Veshamru derech HaShem la’asot tzedakah umishpat; mishpat u’tzedakah b’Yaakov atah asita.) There can be no true and moral justice or meaningful leadership without concurrent concern for the individual, particularly for the individual whose life, safety, well-being and security would otherwise not be guaranteed.

The Rambam writes in the second chapter of Hilchot Teshuva, “Since the scapegoat, sair ha’mishtaleach, was an atonement for all Israel, the High Priest made confession over it in the name of all Israel, as it is said “and he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that since the sair is a korban tzibur, the atonement which it attains is a collective one. The individual is not forgiven directly but through the atonement granted to the tzibur as a whole, and each individual Jew partakes of this atonement as a member of the klal. Each Jew is granted atonement on Yom Kippur as an individual, and indirect atonement through the channel of the general kaparah granted to the klal. 

On Yom Kippur we pray, Melech mochail v’soleiach la’avonotainu, God Who forgives our sins as individuals; v’la’avonot amo beit Yisrael – and the sins of the house of Israel. A collective.

To be a member of the Jewish community means to never lose a sense of individuality. The Jewish community, the tzibur, is not simply a gathering of individuals, lost in the relentessness of time. It is a wholeness, a mysterious singularity to which every single Jew belongs.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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