Lazer Gurkow

A Nation of One

The Torah portion that we read this Shabbat describes the Jewish people as a nation of one. “You all stand this day before G-d, your G-d the leaders, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, every man of Israel. your young children, your women, and your convert within your camp, your woodcutters, and your water carriers.”

There are ten classes of people listed here, but Israel was not a class society—all stood equally and firmly before G-d. In the words of our sages, “though I enumerated separate classes, in my eyes you are all equal.” When we stand on our own, we each stand alone, but when we stand before G-d, we are a nation of one. A singular organism comprised of many parts; E Pluribus Unum—from many, one.

Why does the designation change when we stand before G-d and why are we splintered when we are on our own? To answer this question, we must introduce a profound Jewish teaching.

The Power of Many
I recently posted on Facebook that if you want to find someone capable of perfection, look in the mirror. Several commenters objected that perfection is beyond the realm of the human, and they were right. My point was that for us, perfection simply means to be the best that we can be. Our best might not be objective perfection, but it is our perfect—subjective perfection. Only G-d is objectively perfect.

If so, how does standing before G-d make us perfect, aren’t we incapable of objective perfection?

The answer is that when you consider each person for themselves, none of them are perfect. But when you consider an entire group, they can be perfect. What one lacks, the other fulfills. This may not be true of every group. For example, there can be a family that doesn’t have a single even-tempered person; sadly, we all no such families. There can be another family without a single sane person; sadly, we know such families too. However, when you gather an entire nation, every good trait, every talent, and every achievement is bound to be represented.

So, take the Jewish people for example. If you gather the entire nation, every positive trait and every Mitzvah will be represented. And though there are many Mitzvot that cannot be performed today, for example, the Mitzvot that can only be performed in the Temple, if we consider the historic Jewish nation as a single entity, we will find plenty of people from the past who could represent us on those Mitzvot.

Now you understand what I mean when I say that we are a nation of one. If we are a nation of many, not a single one of us is perfect. But when we are a nation of one, we are all complete. What one lacks, the other fulfills. Thus, we find completion in each other.

Before G-d
This is all a nice rhetorical device. Hyperbolically speaking, we can consider ourselves perfect, but in reality, no matter how many people we draw into our team, we are still each an individual. It is true that the team includes every positive talent, trait, and ability, but still, no individual on the team is perfect. That is unless the individual stands before G-d. What does it mean to stand before G-d?

It means to stand ready to obey His wishes no matter what they are. If G-d says jump, I will jump. If He says sit, I will sit. I won’t be happier to sit than to jump. Either option makes me equally happy because my objective isn’t to be comfortable or to achieve, my objective is to do G-d’s bidding.

When we stand before G-d, we don’t see ourselves as individuals with hopes, aspirations, goals, and dreams. We see ourselves as servants. What He wants, we want. As our sages said, “subordinate your will to His will.” When we do so, our limitations are not our own, they are G-d’s.

G-d made one Jew a Kohen, another a Levite, and a third an Israelite. G-d placed one Jew in Israel, another in Europe, and a third in America. G-d placed one Jew in the Temple era, another in the Inquisition era, and a third in our era. Each of these Jews stood prepared to do whatever G-d wanted, whenever He wanted, wherever He wanted. Thus, each became an integral part of the greater whole.

When we are in it for ourselves, we take credit for the good and blame for the bad. But when we are in it for G-d, it is all about G-d. I am a member of this nation because G-d placed me here, and He wants me here and you, there. Me now, and you, later. Me with these strengths, and you with those. I happily accept whatever He gives me because I know that He has a plan that unfolds through us. Through each of us individually, but more importantly, through all of us collectively.

Thus, Moses told his people that they stood as one because they were standing before G-d.

Standing Firm
Moses didn’t only tell them that they were standing, he used the Hebrew word, nitzavim, which means to stand firm. When your weaknesses and drawbacks are filled in by another’s strengths there is nothing to hold you back. You can stand before G-d without trembling. As a nation, we stand firmly.

Standing firm means to not fall back, but we must do more than hold our ground. We must also journey forth. We must strive to grow and to improve. Stand before an infinite G-d, Who will always be beyond us no matter how high we might reach, further awakens our desire to try harder and to reach higher. This is implied by the second Torah portion that we will read this Shabbat called Vayelech—and he went forth. We stand firm and don’t lose ground. But we never stop striding forward and attempting to make progress.

Rosh Hashanah
Kabbalah teaches that when Moses said you stand firmly this day, he was referring to Rosh Hashanah.[5] Indeed, on Rosh Hashanah, large numbers of Jews ordinarily congregate in synagogues to pray as a group. However, this year many of us will stay away from large groups and will be praying at home.

Nevertheless, our sages teach us that from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, G-d regards the prayer of the individual as similar to that of a congregation. So, if you are isolating at home this Rosh Hashanah, focus on your nation, on your people. You are not one, you are a member of the nation of one. Though you are not with them in person, G-d regards you as if you are with the group. He accepts your prayers as if it were offered with the congregation. Just as He never finds fault with the congregation because each fault is buttressed by another’s strength, so will He not find fault with your individual prayer. On Rosh Hashanah, you are part of the nation. The nation of one.

At the same time, those who are at the synagogue this year must endeavor to keep the rest of the community in mind so that we can be together. Together—a nation of one.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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