Chapter 14, in this week’s parshah, ostensibly opens with a verse which limits the religious propriety of injuring one’s body as an expression of mourning: “You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves (lo titgodidu) nor make a bald spot on the front of your head for the dead.” (Deut. 14:1)
Rashi captures beautifully the sense of the commandment: “Do not make a gash in your flesh over the dead for this is the way of the Amorites. Since you are the children of God, it is fitting for your to have a nice appearance without gashes and bald spots.”
For the rabbinic sages, though, unusual words or ways of expression often served as a means for thrashing out significant religious and social issues. And so, the fact that the unusual verb “titgodedu” rings similar to the Hebrew root “alef, gimel, daled”, meaning “group”, also served as inspiration for the following midrash: “Don’t make for yourselves separate groups (agudot), rather be a united group” (Sifre Devarim 96, Finkelstein ed. p. 158) This midrashic allusion opened up a rabbinic discussion on the question of social cohesiveness. How much conformity is necessary to ensure that a community (or any community for that matter) can function as a community? Similarly, can distinctive groups exist within the framework of a larger community? This is a particularly fraught question in our day where the tone of the debate over individual freedoms versus communal responsibility is so raw.
I suppose it is worth noting that this debate is not a new one but has been going on since time immemorial and has become even more relevant as individuals become more mobile, moving from one community to another and political and religious idiosyncrasy becomes more common. In other words, the question is how to find a careful balance between one’s responsibility to community and one’s individual identity.
Throughout the ages, this was both a religious and legal problem. How does a single community deal with different legal rulings or different practices? Of late, where all aspects of life have become increasingly contentious, it might be wise to heed this midrashic advice. There is no panacea for this problem, no magic wand to wave to bring about societal cohesiveness. Still, I was struck by the profound words of the author of the Sefer Hahinukh (late 13th century Spain), whose interpretation of this dictate somehow managed to put a finger on what is lacking in today’s polity: “This prohibition [against braking up into distinctive groups] applies to a community where there is a dispute where each side is on equal footing and each side wants to have its own way and as a consequence promulgate quarrels. The sides must bargain with each other until they ideally come to an agreement…” (adapted – Mitzvah 476)
If we can find the modus vivendi for carrying out this advice, we might truly deserve to called the “children of the Lord”.