You Can’t Do it Alone 1
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.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, vol. 2 pgs. 355-357
2. Devarim 14:1
3. Shemos 35:1
4. Vayikra 11:44
5. Shemos 19:2
6. Shabbos 88A
7. Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org