He is our Father. Yet not a single one of us is His child. Impossible? Not
really. In the solution to this puzzle lies a key element in our
preparation for Shavuos.
It is patently clear that no person is called Hashem’s child. Only
collectively are we ever referred to as His children, as in banim atem
le-Hashem. Similarly, He is never called Father to the individual,
but only to the collective – and only when united as one. Think of the
words at the end of the Amidah. “Bless us, our Father, all of us as
one.” The last words emphasize that Hashem assumes the special role of
Father only in regard to us as a whole, and additionally, only when we
bind ourselves to each other effectively.
We do not have to look very hard to find other examples of specialness
attached to the collective. The mitzvah of Shabbos was given to us in an
unusual manner, with all of us gathered together to receive it.  The
instruction to strive for kedushah is given by the Torah in a
command to the many, not to the individual: “You are to sanctify
yourselves, and you shall be holy.” What do these share in common?
They both involve unusual levels of attachment to the Divine. Individuals
simply can’t make it on their own. Only the many, the community can access
these lofty gifts. More precisely, they both deal with attainment that
exceeds the “natural.” The individual does not have it within his power to
go beyond the natural, to transcend. The special power of the collective
makes such transcendence possible.
As we approach Shavuos, Klal Yisrael’s acceptance of the Torah jumps to
our consciousness as an example of this principle. “And Israel encamped
there, opposite the mountain.”  The Mechilta famously tells us that the
singular is used to indicate that they encamped “with one heart, as one
being.” We take this even further in the Shabbos zemiros: “All of the
entered, together, into a covenant; they all said na’aseh ve-nishma
as one.” Banding together gave them the ability to make the most perfect
declaration in human history - na’aseh ve-nishma.
The mindset behind that declaration is hisbatlus – negating the
sense of self in the presence of Hashem. This, of course, is easier to
speak about than to accomplish. In imagining how we could get there, we
quickly see the place of the collective. Becoming part of a collective
requires that we diminish our sense of self, our assumption that at our
core lies real substance. This imagined substance of ours is toxic to our
relationship with others. So long as this sense of substance survives
within us, it dictates policy in our interaction with everyone else. It
demands to be fed and pampered – making it difficult to truly join in with
others to serve the common good.
Bnei Yisrael found unity in encamping at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
People threw themselves into the collective for that event, subduing their
sense of self-importance by negating it relative to the nation. Through
this hisbatlus to something outside of their individual selves,
they were then able to negate themselves to HKBH, and declare na’aseh
ve-nishma. The Gemara describes a Heavenly voice exclaiming at the
time, “Who revealed to My children this secret, that the ministering
angels use?” The angels’ “secret” is their complete hisbatlus to
the Will of G-d. This is not “difficult” for them; they lack a sense of
self that would interfere with it. Humans, on the other hand, have a
developed sense of self. Negating it, achieving what the angels do with
ease, is a remarkable accomplishment.
We find no other preparation by our ancestors for the giving of the Torah –
only the all-important negation of self that began with their joining
together at the foot of the mountain. Keeping this in mind, we arrive at a
new understanding of a practice that the sefarim ha-kedoshim urge
upon us. They tell us, before every prayer, to consciously accept upon
ourselves to love our fellow as ourselves. The reason may not be that the
mitzvah of loving others is so important. Rather, it may be that it is
impossible to really love the next person without first conquering our
sense of self. At the core of the mitzvah, then, is hisbatlus. This
hisbatlus is a potent method of increasing the effectiveness of our
davening, and thus a good way to begin it.
Rabbi Akiva called loving our fellow as ourselves “the great principle of
the Torah.” Just why is this true? In what sense does this mitzvah
stand out from among all the important mitzvos of the Torah? Furthermore,
we have a hard time creating a conceptual place for this mitzvah, let
alone give it such a position of prominence. R. Chaim Vital explains why
the Torah does not explicitly direct us in all the labor of improving our
character traits. It is not that this avodah is unimportant. To
the contrary. The Torah simply cannot do its job properly on a person with
unrefined character. Addressing our character flaws is thus a precondition
to the system of mitzvos, not a part of it! Loving our fellow could be
seen as part of the avodah of improving the inner person, and
therefore not at all a “great principle” of the body of the Torah.
R. Akiva may have something quite different in mind. The “great
principle” is not in the mitzvah itself, but in the hisbatlus, the
self-effacement that must precede loving others properly. This
hisbatlus is indeed the great principle that allows a person to
perform his individual kabbalas ha-Torah. And each year, as we approach
Shavuos and ready ourselves for that kabbalah, we should keep in
mind the need to band together attitudinally with all other Jews, becoming
as one with the many.