Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World Mizrachi
Rav Reuven Taragin, Educational Director at World MizrachiThe Western Wall Hesder Yeshiva

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמִין בְּעַצְמְךָ עַד יוֹם מוֹתְךָ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִשְׁמֹעַ, שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לְהִשָּׁמַע. וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה: (אבות ב:ה)

The Damage of Distance

The fifth Mishnah of Avot’s second perek quotes five warnings issued by Hillel, the first of which cautions us against separating from the tzibur (community). The Rambam sees such separation as uniquely severe and presents the separatist as losing his portion in Olam Haba. He explains that separating from the community is one of the five things that block the path to teshuvah because the separatist misses the opportunity (to be inspired) to do teshuvah together with the community.

Rabbeinu Yonah adds that the separatist seems to object to (and also causes others to disrespect) the holy values the Jewish People are committed to. Conversely, the Maharal explains that one connected to the tzibur benefits from the “koach hatzibur” — the community’s unique strength and eternal destiny.

Many also see the tzibur’s unity as having ontological significance. The Ritva and the Maharal use this to explain the Torah’s juxtaposition of the prohibition against sectorial subdivision to the words “banim atem l’Hashem elokeichem.” As the children of God, we should represent His oneness with our own. When we separate from the tzibur, we imply godly divisiveness (chas v’shalom).

Rav Kook took this further by comparing a separatist to the woman who was willing to accept Shlomo HaMelech’s decision to cut a disputed baby in half. Like a physical human being, the Jewish people are an organic whole and must remain unified.

Through Thick…

The Rishonim discuss the times when it is most important to emphasize our connection with the tzibur. The Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah mention community gatherings for the purpose of mitzvah performance. Mass fulfillment of Hashem’s Will glorifies His presence; everyone should join.

…And Thin

The Rambam also mentions times of tzarah (distress). The Meiri explains that even one able to save himself should endeavor to save the broader community. He references the words of Mordechai to Esther: “Don’t think that you are safe in the king’s palace. If you are quiet at this moment (and do not help the Jews), the Jews will be saved another way, and you and your family will be the ones lost.”

In addition to offering assistance, one should also empathize. The gemara teaches that one who does not identify with the community’s suffering will also be excluded from their eventual consolation. The gemara then uses this idea to explain why Moshe Rabbeinu chose a stone (as opposed to a pillow) to hold his arms up during the war with Amalek. Moshe did not want to feel comfortable while the community felt distress.

Moshe Rabbeinu actually demonstrated this same middah from the very beginning of Sefer Shemot, where the Torah describes him as “seeing” both his Jewish brothers and their pain. Rashi explains that the second “seeing” means that “his eyes and heart sympathized with them.” This motivated Moshe to physically help them carry their loads. Hashem shows his empathy in the very next perek by choosing specifically a thorn bush as the context within which to appear to Moshe. Like Moshe, Hashem also identifies with the Jewish People’s pain.

Don’t Daven Divided

Rabbeinu Bachaya adds a third area, that of tefillah. Communal prayer generates heavenly goodwill and gives even a rasha the opportunity to have his prayers accepted. For this reason, even when unable to get to shul, we should at least daven at the same time as the community.

The Zohar explains that the Ishah HaShunamit took this even further. Her words to Elisha, who asked if he could request something on her behalf, were “betoch ami ani yoshevet.” The Zohar explains that it was Rosh Hashanah and Elisha was asking if he could daven for her (as she was barren and prayers for barren women are answered on Rosh Hashanah). She responded that she did not want anyone to daven for her especially; rather, she wanted to be davened for as part of the Jewish People.

We, too, express this idea by formulating our prayers in plural. We daven, not only for ourselves, but also for all those who need what we need. The gemara gives the example of tefilat haderech (the traveler’s prayer) which employs a plural formulation. We use this model for our Shemoneh Esreh and for most of our tefilot.

Even when we pray on behalf of individuals, we pray for them as part of the broader community. For example, the Mi Shebeirach we recite on behalf of specific sick people (who we mention by name) adds the words “b’toch sha’ar cholei Yisrael (amongst the other Jewish sick).” Similarly, when we console mourners, we pray that Hashem console them “amongst the other mourners for Zion and Yerushalayim.” We petition Hashem as part of the broader tzibur.

Individuality, Not Individualism

We live in a world that emphasizes individualism. Judaism values individuality, not individualism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l explains that there is “all the difference in the world between individuality and individualism. Individuality means that I am a unique and valued member of a team. Individualism means that I am not a team player at all. I am interested in myself alone, not the group… Judaism values individuality, not individualism. As Hillel said, ‘If I am only for myself, what am I? (Mishnah Avot 1:14).’”

May our development of our unique individuality facilitate a stronger connection to and appreciation of the broader Jewish community.

*Transcribed by Rafi Davisa