By Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov
When we think of the billions of people that G-d created, it is hard to think of any individual as significant. Even taking into account the uniqueness of the Jewish people, we ask ourselves: What difference do any of us make in the scheme of things? If we had not lived, would the world be different? Would the Jewish people be worse off? Each person seems so small and insignificant compared to the vast world. Does any one person make a difference?
Modern philosophers have asked and answered this question in various ways. Marxism taught us that mass movements dominate the world, and influence the outcome of world events, but the individual is unimportant in changing the world. The pendulum of history swings back and forth, regardless of any one person or group of people. Existentialism taught the futility of the individual, his insignificance in this lonely world, and the emptiness of human existence.
The postmodern world emphasized the individual’s development, happiness, ego, and his ability to change himself. But very little is said about his ability to change the world, to make a difference.
The Torah [Bible] sees it differently. The Torah teaches us that one person can make a difference, and that indeed, it is each person’s responsibility to do so. The story of Joseph, as told in Genesis, is an example of one person who changed the world. It describes a series of events that led the Jewish people into Egyptian exile. The jealousy of Joseph’s brothers led to the sale of Joseph. Joseph ended up in prison in Egypt where, with G-d’s help, he interpreted dreams of other prisoners. This eventually led him to the palace of Pharaoh where he interpreted a set of dreams that caused Pharaoh consternation.
Joseph’s interpretation of the dream led to a change in Egypt’s economic policy and prevented mass starvation. The entire world benefited from his plan and Egypt’s power was strengthened.
What would today’s headlines say? “Breadbasket of the World Faces Starvation.” “Can the Egyptian Economy Recover from Devastating Famine?” “Mass Immigration as Starving Seek Refuge.”
The Torah, on the other hand, describes the events as follows, “Joseph was brought down to Egypt.” One person makes a difference. One person, who was brought down to Egypt, changed world history.
To understand this, we must examine two ideas: the importance of the individual as one who stands completely alone and isolated in this world, and the necessity of individual contribution to society.
THE SINGULARITY OF MAN
The world is founded on the principle of individual significance. Our Rabbis teach:
Man was created alone. To teach that whoever destroys a single soul in Israel, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul in Israel, Scripture ascribes to him as though he had preserved a complete world. … And to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed is He: For if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another. But the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore, every person is obliged to say, “The world was created for my sake” (Sanhedrin 37).
This Mishnah teaches us several important ideas.
- Each person is a world, unique, and brilliant in significance and individuality.
- Each person is different — from the time of the creation of the first person until the end of history — there was and will never be a person like him. No one person is exactly like any other in his combination of talents, deficiencies, strengths, energies.
- Every individual must view himself as so significant that G-d would have created the entire world for his sake alone.
This singularity of Adam is the inheritance of each person. The Jewish nation was founded by one father who stood up against the rest of the world. Our Patriarch, Avraham, was called Avraham HaIvri. The word “ivri” means “other side.” Our Rabbis teach us that Avraham was called this because he stood on one side of the world, while everyone else stood on the other side of the world (Pesachim 118).
Avraham taught monotheism in a pagan world. He was ridiculed, threatened with extermination, and isolated; yet he remained firm in his belief and his teachings.
This ability to stand alone was ingrained and inherited by the children of Avraham, the Jewish people. We are dependent only on Torah for our identity, strengths, and beliefs.
However, although we are capable of standing alone, we often do not define ourselves this way. We often avoid standing alone — we often validate ourselves only within relationships — marital, family, social sphere — or by our profession, power, and prestige.
While relationships are an essential part of the human experience, and while professions provide us with use of our creative energy, they are not validation of our uniqueness as human beings. In fact, we often hide within those relationships and positions in order to avoid being alone and facing ourselves.
THE HIGH HOLY DAYS
Once a year, we are reminded of our aloneness, and we must account for ourselves as unique individuals. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we stand completely alone before G-d. We realize that we stand in judgment on our own, and there is no one who can help us or save us. We cannot use our alliances with other people as justification for poor behavior, or as compensation for our own growth. Each of us is our own witness and our own defense. All guilt and failure belongs to us alone, and we stand naked before our Creator as if there is no one else in the world.
When our Creator asks, “Why did you do this or that?” we cannot answer, “Because everyone else was doing it.” We cannot hide behind the actions of others, or hold onto the coattails of others in an effort to justify ourselves.
Our rabbis describe this standing alone on Rosh Hashanah as the “children of Maron.” On Rosh Hashanah, we walk before G-d as children of Maron. The Talmud gives three interpretations of what this means:
What is the meaning of the expression, “like children of Maron?” In Babylon it was translated, “like a flock of sheep.” Reish Lakish said: as in the ascent of Beth Maron. Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: Like the troops of the house of David. Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: (All the same) they are viewed at a simple glance (Rosh Hashanah 18a).
The first interpretation is that we pass before G-d as sheep pass be-fore the shepherd as they go through the sheep gates.
We are part of a flock, yet each sheep counts. The second interpretation is that Maron is a narrow pass through which only one individual can walk at a time. This pass is called Beth Maron. As we walk through life, we walk through a narrow pass, alone, despite friendships and associations with others. The third interpretation is that G-d views us as His soldiers, and makes an assessment of each one’s achievements and capabilities. Each of us is important in our service of the King. No one soldier is less important for the job he has been assigned. The last interpretation is that G-d looks at us all at the same time, yet sees each of us individually.
The High Holy Days provide us with days of solitude, days where we stand before our Creator as individuals, contemplating our uniqueness and our ability to stand alone, as our father Avraham HaIvri did. It is a time to consider what we stand for and to acknowledge that we are not just an unimportant person, but we are each a significant soldier in G-d’s army. We are each unique individuals for whom the entire world was created, and we spend these days asking ourselves how we have used that world, how we have earned that world. These are days we measure up to our own ideals and we make decisions for further growth and accomplishments.
The ultimate goal of being alone is not to create individuals who stand completely alone as an island. The goal is to create individuals who know who they are, what they stand for, and how they can use their individuality for the world and for the Jewish people.
This is a two-step process — to build one’s self into a person who is an individual and who stands alone; and to use that strength to be part of the Jewish people. In so doing, we change the world.
Klal Yisrael — the Jewish people — is more than just a nation. It is an identity that was forged at Sinai, when we all agreed to accept the Torah. From the moment of that acceptance, a new mechanism was formed, one in which all of its members counted and depended on each other; one in which the actions of any individual affected the other members of the group. Klal Yisrael is an all-inclusive unit that is more than the sum total of its parts.
If a Jew hurts in one place in the world, it affects all Jews in other places in the world. If a Jew does a mitzvah (religious act that makes one G-d-like) in America, it affects the reality of Jews in Israel. Likewise, a sin by one person affects all other people. This is the essence of klal Yisrael.
This means that although we stand as individuals, we cannot ignore the affect of our actions on the group. Every mitzvah we do, every sin we transgress, affects the klal. This is true of actions that are done in private, even in secret, unseen. We are one mechanism and part of the same whole. Our actions affect not just us, but the entire Jewish people.
The great Rabbi, the Chafetz Chaim, compared this to two people in a boat. One person decides to drill a hole under his seat. When his companion objects, the man with the drill retorts, “But the hole is under my seat, not yours!” Of course, the hole will sink both of them, and it would be wrong to think otherwise. So it is with the Jewish people — we cannot “drill a hole” under our own seat by sinning, and assume it affects no one but us. We are all in the same boat, and the salvation of one is the salvation of all.
The existence of klal Yisrael even affects the way we are judged. Whereas as an individual, we may not be able to stand in judgment because of our sins, as klal Yisrael, we merit a different, more merciful, kind of judgment. This is why we pray in a minyan, and why we pray in the plural — not just for our individual healing and redemption, but for the redemption of all of the Jewish people. In being part of the greater whole, we merit more Divine intervention and mercy.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
To make a difference, a person must first identify himself as a person who stands alone. He must know what he lives for and what he is willing, if necessary, to die for. He must know what he hopes to achieve and set goals for spiritual accomplishment.
He must also understand that klal Yisrael needs him, and that every action he does can be a contribution to the wellbeing of the klal. Every positive thought, deed or word a person does has an effect on the Jewish people.
Therefore, a person can make a tremendous difference even when he sits alone, if he carries the weight of the klal on his shoulders. Once a person realizes this, his life has meaning way beyond himself. And he can make a difference.
Joseph changed the world. The entire world was saved from starvation because one Jew went down to Egypt, and knew that he had a mission. His actions sitting in jail would affect his future and that of his people. If he acted righteously, G-d would be with him; if he acted selfishly, he could not bring about a positive change. His devotion to the greater plan fed the world.
One Jew made a difference. And so can we!
Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov is an internationally acclaimed educator, speaker, and teacher of Midrash, Jewish Philosophy, and Ethics. She is the founder of She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women. She is the author of “Mirrors of Our Lives: Reflections of Women in Tanach”, and “Water from the Well: Reflections of a Jew at the End of History”.