Community vs. Individual
Many commentaries ask why the Mishpatim, the civil laws presented in our parsha, come immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Some observe that the very basis for a Torah society is the structuring of civil law to ensure that society functions properly. Without Derekh Eretz – a civility-based society – there can be no Torah, so Mishpatim must be the foundation of any Torah community.
We can frame this another way: the Torah was presented to an entire nation. We received the Torah “כאיש אחד בלב אחד” – “as one person, with one heart.” It’s our national credo that we are ONE people. But therein lies the problem: when you imagine the Mt. Sinai experience, there are no individual faces, just a national entity of Am Yisrael. One might get the misimpression that the individual does not count in a Torah society. The collective is everything, and the individual’s wellbeing doesn’t matter.
This is especially dangerous for a group of people who have just left slavery, where they were oppressed by having their humanity and individual rights stripped from them. “We were faceless slaves to Pharaoh. Are we to be faceless once again? Just another number in this Torah-based collective?”
An individual’s uniqueness
To create a counterbalance, Hashem, through the Mishpatim, emphasizes that, despite the need for national unity, we cannot lose sight of the rights and the uniqueness of each individual. No matter how important national unity is, it cannot come at the expense of the poor and the oppressed. A criminal, no matter how important they may be to Am Yisrael, must be judged as a criminal, and justice for the individual must prevail, no matter the cost to the communal structures.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and is a former White House staffer under President Bush. The thesis of his latest work is that we live now in a time of tremendous anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. There is a greater mistrust of organizations and institutions than ever before. People are loathe to join organizations, and prefer to view themselves as outsiders instead of belonging to a group.
Part of this is due to social media and the online isolation that breaks social structures. But Levin points to another factor as to why people no longer trust social constructs: organizations were originally focused on influencing their constituents and helping them become better people. Today, however, institutions have transformed from “formative” to “performative.” Instead of a political party, religious institution, or community entity trying to influence its constituents, it focuses largely on advertising its brand and trying to get as many people as possible to follow it and give it a “like.”
The measure of success in our online world is getting the most traffic to your web site and the most approval. This is the “performative” aspect of our institutions. Instead of our institutions influencing the individual, the institution has now become a captive of the individuals who either give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. As Levin states: “We have replaced a culture of integrity with a culture of celebrity – in which achievement is measured by prominence and legitimacy by affirmation.”
The needs of the many, the needs of the one
There are many examples of this in the secular world, whether it be a media outlet, a political party or politician, or a university campus. But it has also crept into the way we do business in the Jewish world. On a recent visit to Israel, I was visiting a wonderful rosh yeshiva friend, who is sincere and idealistic. He wants to help every single talmid of his yeshiva and is extremely reluctant to turn away anyone. He recently accepted a boy who had been asked to leave a different yeshiva, and was sharing with me his concern as to whether he had made the right choice by accepting this young man. Was he creating problems for the yeshiva? “At what point,” he asked, “do we say, ‘enough is enough’?”
I expressed to him that obviously the balance between the klal (communal) and the prat (individual) is very sensitive, and only you, as the rosh yeshiva, can make that determination. But I will say this: If you feel that this individual is hampering your ability to serve the other talmidim, if he’s so disruptive to the yeshiva or if he’s draining resources to the point where you can’t properly educate and inspire the other students, i.e., if he’s hampering your ability to “formative,” then you are justified in letting him go.
But, if your primary concern is the good name of the yeshiva, and this boy is ruining your reputation, but you feel that over time you can serve both this young man and raise him up, and at the same time not compromise on your service to the other boys, then you have no right to ask him to leave. Your desire to be “performative” and shine in the public sphere is insufficient reason to give up on a holy neshamah.
One way that we can all work on rectifying the current “performative” attitude is to realize how we sometimes contribute to the problem. Any time we as individuals advertise our own brand on social media – be it the posting of our latest vacation or the delicious food on our plate for dinner at the restaurant – and create that kind of performance art, we are being “performative.” If self-promotion is the mainstay of our own lives, we can expect no better from our institutions.
Hiding the aura
Let’s take a lesson from Moshe who, upon coming down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the Second Tablets, realized that there was a light shining off of his face, representing a spiritual greatness that he had attained as a result of saving the Jewish people from destruction after the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rabbi Chaim Yoseph David Azoulay, the Chid”a, suggests that Moshe’s face shone as a result of the Jewish people’s forfeiture of their spiritual greatness after they sinned with the Golden Calf. The special “glory” that was forfeited by the people was conferred upon Moshe instead. When Bnei Israel saw this, they became extremely frightened and deeply humiliated. This shining of Moshe’s face represented to them their utter failure in their encounter with the Divine. In Moshe’s face they saw what really should have been their glory, but which they lost because of their impetuousness.
Note how sometimes our behavior is the exact opposite of Moshe Rabeinu. When we achieve some greatness in life, we jump to TikTok or Instagram to flaunt our aura. We’d do better to learn from Moshe to put a veil over our face and hide the aura. In this way, we reduce jealously, and refrain from contributing to the social trend of life as a performance art. In this way, we can focus more on how we can influence others positively.
May our efforts to be strong individuals while at the same time realizing that we can only accept the Torah as part of the klal, as being a member of “עם ישראל” bring us to the redemption speedily, bb”a.