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Vayechi: Human Uniqueness and the Rav

“All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve of them; each according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Bereishit 49:28)

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z’l, commenting on this pasuk, notes that there are two factors which form a person’s character, that being the individual seeing himself as part of the community and each individual has his own destiny, his own personality. As the Ohr HaChaim notes, Yaakov clearly blessed each of his sons according to their own uniqueness.

It is with this approach that I draw to the brilliance of Rav Soloveitchik, but even more so, it was only when I saw the recent news story about the British prime minister wanting to make mathematics compulsory for all students in England until the age of 18, that I had to refresh my intellect and take out the Rav’s phenomenal work, “The Community” which reminded me how impractical and one-sided this notion is.

The Torah tells us that human beings were created Betzelem Elokim – in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This teaches us that we are all created uniquely, with our own unique talents, strengths, interests, beliefs, backgrounds and so forth. We are placed in this world to learn from every person, whether that’s through the Torah they must share, the cognitive, the creative, the moral and the philosophical. The Rav brings about a fundamental message with regards to this notion. Man and woman were created alone because everyone possesses something unique and rare which is unknown to others. Each of us have our own individual message to communicate to this world, our own unique avodah.

We study different things at university, even maybe not going to university and jumping straight into work. We all like to learn different pieces of Torah, we have different political views, some of us may be more creative, less confident, more adventurous, we have different jobs, some of which may involve mathematical analysis and analytical thinking, or some of which may involve deep communication, creativity, good listening skills and empathy. They are all different and they suit us independently. We too read different genres. Just as one’s bookshelf may contain Jewish philosophy, someone else’s may contain fiction and fantasy. There are so many examples we can give in such case to prove that we are all different, yet we still follow the system presented in The Lonely Man of Faith, where we combine Adam I and Adam II. We are here to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28) and we are here to keep and guard the Torah (Genesis 2:15) on our own unique trajectory.

Man and woman were both created alone because when one joins the community, one adds a new dimension to it, and one brings something to the klal that is unique and which God gave him/her. One contributes something which no one else can with their own microcosm. This teaches us that we don’t necessarily have to study mathematics until the age of 18. I’m talking about the English education system, and I am aware that the American education system follows differently. For once I am in favour of the English education system, as it allows students to fully express themselves and this uniqueness that we find from the simple verse of Betzelem Elokim, and clearly through the way Yaakov blessed his children.

Just as one student is passionate about English and Politics and intends on studying law, another student may be creative and independent, and intends on studying Marketing. To add, just as one student is passionate about Torah and community and intends on being a Jewish educator or a rabbi, another student may be a problem solver and intend on studying mathematics. It doesn’t suit the entirety to follow the same system. We all have something unique to us.

The Mishna in Sanhedrin (Sanhedrin 4:5) says that when a human being makes many coins from the same mint, they are all the same. God makes everyone in the same image – His image – yet none is the same as the another. We are all unique.

One must find his or herself before jumping into any relationship or any community. One must know oneself, one’s uniqueness, strengths, weaknesses, and one must know their own avodah. Part of that may not be studying mathematics until the age of 18 and focussing on whatever brings out that specific person to be themselves in this world. It’s the same as not going to university. It is not for everyone. One can not go to university and be successful in their own passions that are unique to their avodah and do not correlate to studying mathematics until the age of 18.

Where can one find their true self? Following the Rav’s teachings, one must find their true self by being alone. By being alone and working on one’s avodah, but most importantly, as the title of the Rav’s essay suggests, one must find themselves in the community! By contributing and being part of a klal, bringing one’s uniqueness and avodah to the table. So, we have to first know our avodah, and then we find ourselves once we nurture our avodah into the community.

The uniqueness of Yaakov’s blessings parallel this phenomenal philosophy outlined by the Rav, in that each of us are different and each of us fulfil a different trajectory in our lives and have a different avodah that is unique to who we are and can allow us to fully express our true being.

About the Author
Darcey is from London, where she works in marketing, and invests her time in various Torah education initiatives, working independently and with various organizations. She has expertise in educational consulting and curriculum development projects, and is the founder of the "Desert Island Torah" podcast which has reached thousands of people across the globe. Darcey has written two books, and is working on several other works to be published in 2023.
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