Judaism: Divrei Azriel: Unity and Individuality - Two Approaches
Unity and Individuality
I would like to dedicate this Dvar Torah for the refuah shleima of my father in law, Mel Pachino, Moshe Bentzion ben Leah Rachel. May Hashem grant him a quick and complete refuas hanefesh u'refuas haguf.
Sefer Bamidbar begins with the counting of Bnei Yisrael, categorized by tribe. After the individuals are counted, we are introduced to the order in which the tribes of Bnei Yisrael should encamp and travel. The tribe of Levi, along with the Mishkan and its utensils, are to travel in the middle of the camp, with the rest of the nation surrounding it on all four sides. In order to properly demarcate them, every tribe is given its own flag, each with a unique color and symbol.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky is bothered by the chronological placement of the parsha of the flags and encampments. Why weren't these divisions created as soon as Bnei Yisrael left Egypt? Rav Yaakov suggests that the different flags given to the different tribes represent the differences between the tribes themselves. Each tribe had a unique personality with its own cultural tendencies, and thus a specific way of serving Hashem.
Since the tribes each had a unique approach to life, had Hashem divided the people by tribe immediately after the Exodus, He would have essentially created twelve separate nations. Before dividing the tribes, Hashem wanted to make sure that they were united and connected by a common purpose, and only then branch out into individuality. The common thread all of Am Yisrael is the Torah and service of Hashem, and that is why the Ark, containing the Luchos, and Mishkan, the dwelling place of Hashem's Shechina, were in the middle of the camp. After Bnei Yisrael received the Torah and built the Mishkan, they could split into separate tribes, each with their unique approach to life and service of Hashem, yet ultimately united as one nation and committed to Torah and Avodas Hashem.
As the Maharal points out, the gematria of "echad - one," is 13, which represents the twelve tribes held together by the middle point - Torah and service of Hashem.
Having just experienced Yom Yerushalayim, another related point comes to mind. I once heard Rav Meir Twersky cite a fascinating comment of the Malbim addressing the Pasuk in Tehillim of "shaalu shalom Yerushalayim, yishlayu ohavayich - inquire as to the peace of Jerusalem, the tranquility of those who love it." The Malbim says that the difference between Shalom and Shalva is that Shalom is an external peace, such as the type of peace that a nation experiences when no other nations are attacking it. Shalva, on the other hand, refers to an internal harmony, a peaceful coexistence of all of the nation's inhabitants. The Malbim says that the pasuk is saying that if someone wants to know about the peace of Yerushalayim, they must look at the tranquility of its inhabitants. If the inhabitants of Yerushalayim are working together harmoniously, then the city is at peace.
Having lived in Yerushalayim for the past 8 years, I can certainly attest to the fact that there are many different types of Jews that reside in it - many different cultures, languages, and certainly many different approaches to serving God. But we shouldn't see this as disadvantageous; on the contrary, different colors amongst Jews are precisely what the Torah wants. Hashem wants us to have different flags, as long as we are all connected under the banner of Torah and Avodas Hashem.
In so many things in life - a sports team, an orchestra, or a human body, for example - it would be a detrimental if every part did the same thing; rather, it is essential that every piece perform its own function, with the ultimate goal of contributing to the success of the whole.
I think that this message is also directly relevant to Shavuot, zman mattan torateinu. Right before receiving the Torah, Am Yisrael is charged with becoming a "mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh - a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Seemingly, the Torah is once again hinting that we are not all supposed to be the same. Rather, the "holy nation" of Am Yisrael must be just that - a nation of disparate individuals that are all grounded in holiness; just as other nations have doctors, teachers, intellectuals, bankers, and bus drivers, so too the "holy nation" of Am Yisrael is supposed to be diversified and function as a independent unit.
People's different roles in Am Yisrael is part of our essence; it makes us a holy nation, and not merely a religion. May we be blessed that the different pieces of Am Yisrael can achieve this level of diversity and individuality, yet still come together ke'ish echad belev echad, and therefore be privileged to fully receive both the Torah and the presence of Hashem.
Individuals in a Utopian World
Last week's coda of Sefer Vayikra seemed to gear the Jewish Nation towards a classless society; if not quite Walden II-esque, certainly a far cry from Atlasian free-market brutality. The entire ethos of shemitta, yovel, fair pricing, and redemption of servants seems to drive towards the ideal of a tight-knit community. Even the ideas of the brachot and klalot can be understood in this fashion: we rise together as a community and we fall together as a community.
The opening of this week's sedra seems to direct Jewish society in a wildly different direction. The entire parsha seems to be defining, fine-tuning and institutionalizing every conceivable distinction among the Jewish people by dividing the tribes, the nobles, the priests, the clans, the old, and the young. This ensures that not only does everyone know his or her status, but enforces the idea that we live based on our statues, and even walk based on it (in formation through the desert). Every Levi has his role determined before birth. Every Kohen is locked into a life of priestly servitude.
To the Modern, Western-educated reader, raised on the ideals of self-determination and social-mobility, these ideas are appalling! How is it fair that a person's lot in life is predetermined? Does Judaism not believe in free will?
This issue may be ameliorated by the approach of Ramban, who writes in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar that most of what we read is a mitzvat sha'ah, a temporary enactment. The Parsha describes the socio-religious equivalent of martial law; a specific set of orders given to a society that was on a geographical and political journey from the slavery of Egypt to the self-governance of Israel.
There is no escaping, though, that even today, as far removed from dor hamidbar as we are, a Yisrael cannot duchen, and a Kohen cannot marry a gerushah. If we truly believe that the Torah is a document written for all times, how do we mesh these ideas with our time?
A shade of an answer might lie in reframing the question. As much as I did believe my parents when they told me growing up that I could do anything I wanted, the fact of the matter is, I cannot dunk - I will never be in the NBA. The notion of absolute free will and unfettered libertarianism must be tempered with reality. Everyone has certain traits that lend themselves to certain roles; one person can have towering intellect, while another phenomenal emotional intelligence. Likewise, one person can be an accomplished engineer, the other an accomplished painter. God did not declare that a Reuvenite is more valuable than a Naphtalite. A Kohen plays no more a crucial role than a Levite, who is no more worthy in the eyes of God than a Yisrael.
Following the initial divisions among the nation, Chapter 1 verse 45 reiterates that the Jewish Nation is comprised of the all the disparate and different units. Ramban, speculating on the reason for this count, suggests it could be to demonstrate how, from a mere 70 souls who descended to Egypt, the Jewish people now numbered in the millions; we are as countless as the dust of the earth, and stars in the heavens. (It goes without saying that the Jewish people number far less than the stars in the cosmos.)
I would suggest that the comparison here is not only quantitative, but qualitative as well. There is no singular, uniform type of star. The universe is populated with red giants, white dwarfs, pulsars, and quasars; a myriad of stars, each unique and impressive. But when you go outside on a moonless night far away from the city and look up, you're not taken aback by a single celestial body, but by the breathtaking tapestry of God's creation: the heavens full of stars.
This is Am Yisrael. Each individual member of the Jewish people is blessed with his or her own talents. These un-chosen factors inevitably bias our lives. Personally, I choose not to see this fact as a depressing edict of oppressive predetermination, but a powerful message of individuality. Each of us can, and should, embrace our natural predispositions and utilize our innate skills and unique gifts. Someone with a strong sense of math may not make a good poet; a skilled oncologist may not succeed as a Rosh Yeshiva. But each, in his or her own way, contributes to the rich tapestry that is the Jewish Nation.
 Midrash Rabba 2:7, also see Ibn Ezra 2:2
 Walden II by B.F. Skinner, describes a classless Utopian society.
 Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, describes an Objectivist society based on "rational selfishness."
 See Genesis 13:16 and 15:5