Single But Not Alone

There’s a children’s tale which has a lesson for adults about a flea who decided to move and go to live with his family in an elephant’s ear.

The flea whispered to the elephant: “Master Elephant: we are planning to move and come to live in your year. I felt that it was only right that I should inform you. You have a week to weigh my offer, and then give me your answer.”

The elephant, who hadn’t even taken notice of the flea’s existence, of course did not respond at the end of that week.

Nevertheless, the fleas and his family waited out the week and took the elephant’s silence to mean that he agreed.

A month passed, and the flea family realized that the conditions of living in the elephant’s ear were unsatisfactory.

Although they reached that conclusion rather quickly, they didn’t want to hurt the elephant’s feelings. They therefore waited several long weeks until they decided to inform the elephant that they wanted to leave.

At last, the flea gathered his courage and politely said to the elephant:

“Master Elephant, we have considered moving to a new home. We have no complaints against you. Your ear is pleasant and warm. However, we would like to move to the neighborhood where our extended family lives, on the horse’s leg. We would appreciate it if you would let us know during the coming week if you have any objection.”

Once again, the elephant said nothing. He was unaware of the flea coming and of his leaving. The flea and his family went to live in their new home with a clear conscience.

* * *

Apparently, this is the way life works…

Does the universe notice our existence? Or are we all only “fleas”…

Embedded deeply in Rosh Hashanah is a certain degree of tension between two opposing principles.

One, that we are not that different from the fleas in the story.

“Man’s origin is dust and he returns to the dust. He is like a fragile potsherd, as the grass that withers, as the flower that fades, as a fleeting shadow, as a passing cloud, as the wind that blows, as the floating dust, yea, and as a dream that vanishes.”

We enter and leave this world, and sometimes it appears that the universe takes no notice of our existence.

Yet on this day man was created, the diamond in the crown of the works of Creation. Every action, every word, every silence, every digression (even the very smallest!) is weighed by the Master of the Universe.

And if at times man feels that the universe takes no notice of him, Rosh Hashanah arrives and we are told that for the Lord of all, each person is a piece of celestial art, a unique and special individual.

The Mishnah in the Sanhedrin Tractate discusses the question of why was the man created as a single specimen and not as a part of a group of peers.

The Mishnah offers several answers to this question, and notes the Sages’ conclusion: “Thus, each individual has to say: ‘For me the world was created.'” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

It seems to me that this principle (“For me the world was created”) is one of the most prominent catchphrases of the post-modern society.

We live in an age of extreme narcissism, especially among the young generation. Youth have become addicted to “likes” and how many followers they have on Instagram and Tweeter. Young people, although not only young people, feel that the world was created for them and only for them.

The latest edition of DSM (2013), the guide for diagnosing mental disorders, removed narcissism from the list.

Not because humanity has been cured of this disorder, but because narcissism has become the norm in our times. It is no longer a disorder in a minority of the population.

There is nothing wrong in thinking that the world was created for you. The problem is how you interpret this principle.

There is a hero in the Bible that felt to some extent that the world was created only for him. I am speaking of Noah. Noah was not created singularly. Nevertheless, after the flood, he remained “singular” in the world.

The book of the Zohar criticizes him and implies that Noah didn’t understand correctly the meaning of the sentence “For me the world was created”.

The Zohar does this through the use of a Biblical character who is the exact opposite of Noah, a man who was also placed in an “ark” and found himself surrounded by dangerous waters. A man who felt on his own skin the threat that Noah felt: to be “singular” in the society in which he lived.

Of course, we are referring to Moses. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses received an offer similar to that which Noah had received in the days of the Flood (Zohar, Noah 67b).

“Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them and that I might consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10)

According to the Zohar, Noah could have defended the people of his generation in the same way that Moses did after the sin of the Golden Calf.

But the story of Noah is one of personal failure and lack of responsibility.

Noah was unable to understand in depth the expression “For me the world was created”. He gave it a statistic-demographic connotation, and not a social-theological one.

According to the Zohar’s approach, the correct way to understand the expression “For me the world was created” is: “The fate of the world rests upon my shoulders and my ability to affect what happens in it.”

And if not the world, than at least the country.

And if not the country, than at least the community.

And if not the community, than at least the neighbor.

May we be rewarded in this new year to a life in a congregation with mutual support, with an outstretched arm to one another for joint endeavors and may the words of the sages come to pass: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” (Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers 2:16).

Ketivah and Chatimah Tovah!

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Kehillat Netzach Israel, Ashkelon

About the Author
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski is the Rabbi at Kehillat Netzach Israel, the Masorti (Conservative) congregation in Ashkelon.