Looking back at the just-concluded holiday of Shavuot, it’s hard not to remain in awe at the magnitude of the event it commemorates. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is remarkable not just because it embodies a link between the physical and supernal realms.
What stands out when contemplating this seminal moment in the Jewish psyche is how it unfolds. There stands an entire people — 600,000 men, their children and wives — at the foot of the mountain. Not only do these newly freed slaves group themselves according to their 12 tribes, but they represent a host of leadership roles and functions. In addition to Moses, there’s his brother Aaron, the leaders of each tribe and lesser officers and administrators. But only one, Moses himself, ascends the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.
Had the entire people joined Moses at the top, one could have argued that Jewish strength lies in the individuality of the Jewish person. The presence of a leader, however, indicates that true Jewish strength lies in being able to remain an individual — tradition teaches that although Moses received the two tablets, all of the people heard the voice of the Almighty communicate the first two commandments to him — and yet unite behind a common goal.
So there we have the dueling forces of the human condition: the innate need to assert one’s unique thoughts, drives and desires on the one hand, tempered by the necessity to achieve the greater good on the other. This dynamic continues today at home, in the synagogue, on the street, in public debate and in the pages of newspapers and magazines. This conflict — in the Jewish world, it can be found most glaringly in how people approach events in the Middle East — manifests itself when any person declares his own personal view to trump the rights of anyone else to draw her own conclusions, or similarly when people supposedly speaking for “the group” call any other opinion contrary to their own out of bounds.
At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their own viewpoint, not by virtue of American democracy, but by virtue of the fact that he or she was created with a brain. This right to individuality can be seen in the idea that every member of the Jewish people received the Torah more than 3,000 years ago.
Ultimately, however, such individuality should be directed to a higher purpose; in a Jewish context, this means using one’s talents to make the world a fitting receptacle for Godliness.
This is where education comes in. Education doesn’t typically happen in the letters to the editor section; it happens in the home first and in the school second. Rubin Sztajer, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, was able to raise educated children and grandchildren, but even at the age of 88, receiving his high school diploma has become a crucial moment in a life scarred by the Holocaust.
We all must do more to ensure that education, especially Jewish education, is made available to all. Community institutions, such as the Bais Yaakov School for Girls and Cheder Chabad — where, in the spirit of full disclosure, my children attend — are deserving of increased support. On Tuesday, June 10, the cheder will attempt to raise $40,000 in a single day. I urge you to go to charidy.com/chederchabadbaltimore and participate.