What is the Torah’s view of the community in relation to the individual? What should be the balance between communal goals and individual aspirations? To what extent can the individual influence the community for good or evil?
In last week’s Parsha, following the report of the Spies and the nation’s loss of faith, G-d said to Moshe, How long shall this evil group exist? (14:27) Rashi referenced the Gemara in Sanhedrin 74b that says, From here we derive that a community (Aydah) can not be less than 10 Jewish men. (The reference is to the 10 spies who gave the negative report.) This is from where we learn that a Minyan must consist of 10 men.
In this week’s Parsha, Korach’s challenge to Moshe’s leadership is called, Korach and his congregation (Aydah). Throughout the story of the rebellion the rebellious faction is called a congregation-Aydah. When G-d wanted to destroy the entire people because of Korach He instructed Moshe, Separate yourselves from this community-Aydah. (16:21) Moshe’s response was so obvious we have to wonder at G-d’s initial judgment. If one man sins shall You direct divine wrath at the entire community-Aydah? (16:22)
The Rambam in the third chapter of the Laws of Teshuva explained that both individuals and communities are judged. An individual is judged on his own merits and the community is judged on their collective merits. In the event that the individual is righteous and the community is evil, the individual could be compromised by the collective judgment. However, if the community is righteous and the individual is evil, the community can only be affected if they knew of the individual’s wrong doing and did nothing about it. Hidden things are G-d’s domain, but that which has been revealed applies to us and our children forever. (Devarim 29:28)
The Talmud states, One who saves the life of a single person is as if he has saved an entire world. Our most cherished value is the value of life. The only time the value of an individual life is forfeited is in relation to G-d Himself. Otherwise, the worth of an individual remains paramount. Life is of such infinite value that we suspend all other obligations to protect a single moment of life. (As mentioned in last week’s Rabbi’s Notebook in relation to Kalev’s accomplishments and reward.)
The power of the individual has been well documented throughout history. For better or for worse, individuals have moved nations to war and to peace, greatness, and dismal failure. The individual has proven himself to be the most dignified or the most debased of all G-d’s creations.
In the Torah, the power of the individual is clearly identified. Starting with Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden we see the power of an individual’s single act to alter the destiny of a world.
When Kayin killed Hevel he killed ¼ of the world’s population.
The story of the Tower of Babal is a tale of one man’s manipulation (Nimrod) of an entire civilization.
The story of our Avos speaks volumes about the power of the individual.
Avraham and Sarah taught the world that G-d existed and that He cared.
Yitzchak’s courage showed the world the meaning of devotion and sacrifice.
Yakov exemplified the power of truth and integrity over falsehood.
Yoseph’s rise to dominance is among the best examples of how one person can impact the destiny of nations.
Starting with Moshe, the power and potential of the individual reached its pinnacle of greatness. Moshe was the one and only. As G-d said to Aharon and Miriam, the most trusted in my entire household. For whatever reason, G-d decided that Torah could only be transmitted through the medium of a single person. No one else would ever be chosen to bring another Torah to the world. As the 7th, 8th, and 9th of the Thirteen Principles of Faith state: 7) Moshe was the greatest of all prophets. 8) The Torah given to Moshe is the Torah we have today. 9) The Torah we have today will never be exchanged. G-d will never give another Torah.
Although the transmission of Torah and knowledge throughout history has been a process of one on one, parent to child, teacher to student, chavrusa to chavrusa; the Torah was not given to an individual, it was given to a nation. It is the eternity of the people that guarantees the eternity of the Torah. Moshe stood with the rest of the nation at the moment of revelation. Afterwards, he alone ascended the mountain to be taught the meaning of G-d’s word. The individual became the means for transmitting the understanding of G-d’s word, but it is the nation that secures the eternal transmission of the Torah.
The requirement of a Minyan for Tefilah is derived from the story of the Spies. Why is something so fundamental to our relationship with G-d, such as Minyan and davening, derived from an incident of such failure? Why is Korach’s name always compounded with the words, and his congregation Aydah? Why was the understanding of the Torah given to only one person? Why should a righteous individual be made to suffer for the sins of his community?
Starting with the story of Miriam’s Tzaraat the uniqueness of Moshe Rabbeinu has been a focal point of the Torah. Moshe’s uniqueness was his humility. Regardless of whether he was the smartest or the best, he was the most humble. Aharon may have been more loving, and Korach may have been smarter, but Moshe was the most humble. Therefore, Moshe was the greatest.
Moshe’s humility was displayed in two areas.
First in relation to G-d. Moshe was completely subject to G-d’s will. (As Rashi says on Pasuk 17:13, when Aharon stopped the plague following Korach’s rebellion he told the Angel of Death, Moshe never speaks an original thought. He only says that which G-d told him to say.)
Second, in relation to the people. Moshe lived for the Bnai Yisroel. He defined his personal accomplishments solely on the basis of his ability to serve his nation. Moshe accepted that whoever he was and whatever his abilities, they were solely for the sake of serving G-d and the people. He never denied his personal greatness. He knew that he was to be the one and only. Yet, it was not for his personal glory or the glory of his family, it was for the glory of G-d and the benefit of the Bnai Yisroel.
Korach, and the Spies who preceded his rebellion, were just the opposite. True they were all men of reputation and stature. True they were each courageous and smart. However, they served their own interests not the interests of G-d or His people. Each one of them, especially Korach, was egotistical to the point of disaster. They were blinded by their own agenda and lost sight of G-d. Had they been more humble and willing to accept Moshe’s leadership, they would have been remembered for all history as the greatest of the great.
The message of last week’s and this week’s Parshios is simple. As Jews, we have an individual and collective responsibility to serve G-d. To the extent that we subject ourselves to Moshe’s teachings of the Torah we will benefit our people, the world, and ourselves. To the extent that we oppose Moshe’s teachings is the extent to which we destroy the people we love the most and ourselves.
Every time we go to Minyan the fundamental truths of our existence are reconfirmed. True, we can pray alone. True, we are each individuals possessing unique talents and personalities. However, the purpose of our existence is to serve G-d and His people. It is our personal responsibility to study Torah and attain greatness, but the reason for doing so is to guarantee the eternity of the Torah though living and teaching its truths.
Individual talents and aspirations are neither good nor bad. They are tools with which to accomplish our missions. The Spies were a community who used its talents to go against G-d’s wishes and destroy. Korach was a uniquely talented individual who could have joined Moshe in leading the people, but instead caused the demise of his entire family, community, and another 14,700 people.
As individuals, we are judged on our personal relationship with G-d as well as on our contributions to the community. The individual is obligated to develop himself so that he can properly contribute to the whole. At times the individual must divorce himself from the community in order to grow and develop. That is the only way to attain true Torah scholarship and greatness. However, to do so is proper only when the motive is to ultimately serve the community.
Moshe and Korach represent two sides of the same coin. Moshe alone was given the Torah for the purpose of teaching the people. Korach wanted to take the Torah as his own so that the people would ultimately serve him.
Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.