The Damage of Distance
The fifth Mishna of Avot’s second perek quotes five warnings issued by Hillel, the first of which cautions us against separating from the tzibbur (community).1 The Rambam sees such separation as uniquely severe and presents the separatist as losing his portion in Olam Haba.2 He explains that separating from the community is one of the five things that block the path to teshuva, because the separatist misses the opportunity (to be inspired) to do teshuva together with the community.3
Rabbeinu Yonah4 adds that the separatist seems to object to (and also causes others to disrespect) the holy values the Jewish people are committed to. Conversely, the Maharal5 explains that one connected to the tzibbur benefits from the “koach hatzibbur” — the community’s unique strength and eternal destiny.
Many also see the tzibbur’s unity as having ontological significance. The Ritva6 and the Maharal7 use this to explain the Torah’s juxtaposition of the prohibition against sectorial subdivision8 to the words, “banim atem l’Hashem elokeichem.” As the children of God, we should represent His oneness with our own. When we separate from the tzibbur, we imply godly divisiveness (chas v’shalom).
Rav Kook took this further by comparing a separatist to the woman who was willing to accept Shlomo HaMelech’s decision to cut a disputed baby in half.9 Like a physical human being, the Jewish people are an organic whole and must remain unified.10
Through Thick …
The Rishonim discuss the times when it is most important to emphasize our connection with the tzibbur. The Rambam11 and Rabbeinu Yonah12 mention community gatherings for the purpose of mitzvah performance. Mass fulfillment of Hashem’s Will glorifies His presence; everyone should join.13
… And Thin
The Rambam also mentions times of tzarah (distress).14 The Meiri15 explains that even one able to save himself should endeavor to save the broader community. He references the words of Mordechai to Esther: “Don’t think that you are safe in the king’s palace. If you are quiet at this moment (and do not help the Jews), the Jews will be saved another way, and you and your family will be the ones lost.”
In addition to offering assistance, one should also empathize. The Gemara16 teaches that one who does not identify with the community’s suffering will also be excluded from their eventual consolation.17 The Gemara then uses this idea to explain why Moshe Rabbeinu chose a stone (as opposed to a pillow) to hold his arms up during the war with Amalek. Moshe did not want to feel comfortable while the community felt distress.18
Moshe Rabbeinu actually demonstrated this same middah from the very beginning of sefer Shemot, where the Torah describes him as “seeing” both his Jewish brothers and their pain.19 Rashi20 explains that the second “seeing” means that “his eyes and heart sympathized with them.” This motivated Moshe to physically help them carry their loads.21 Hashem shows His empathy in the very next perek22 by choosing specifically a thorn bush, as the context within which to appear to Moshe. Like Moshe, Hashem also identifies with the Jewish people’s pain.
Don’t Daven Divided
Rabbeinu Bachaya adds a third area, that of tefillah. Communal prayer generates heavenly goodwill23 and gives even a rasha the opportunity to have his prayers accepted.24 For this reason, even when unable to get to shul, we should at least daven at the same time as the community.25
The Zohar26 explains that the Ishah HaShunamit took this even further. Her words to Elisha, who asked if he could request something on her behalf, were “betoch ami ani yoshevet.” The Zohar explains that it was Rosh Hashanah and Elisha was asking if he could daven for her (as she was barren and prayers for barren women are answered on Rosh Hashanah). She responded that she did not want anyone to daven for her especially; rather, she wanted to be davened for as part of the Jewish people.
We, too, express this idea by formulating our prayers in plural.27 We daven, not only for ourselves, but also for all those who need what we need. The Gemara gives the example of tefilat haderech (the traveler’s prayer) which employs a plural formulation. We use this model for our Shemoneh Esrei and for most of our tefilot.
Even when we pray on behalf of individuals, we pray for them as part of the broader community. For example, the Mi Shebeirach we recite on behalf of specific sick people (who we mention by name) adds the words “b’toch sha’ar cholei Yisrael (amongst the other Jewish sick).” Similarly, when we console mourners, we pray that Hashem console them “amongst the other mourners for Zion and Yerushalayim.” We petition Hashem as part of the broader tzibbur.
Individuality, Not Individualism
We live in a world that emphasizes individualism. Judaism values individuality, not individualism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, explains that there is “all the difference in the world between individuality and individualism. Individuality means that I am a unique and valued member of a team. Individualism means that I am not a team player at all. I am interested in myself alone, not the group … Judaism values individuality, not individualism. As Hillel said, ‘If I am only for myself, what am I? (Mishnah Avot 1:14).’”
May our development of our unique individuality facilitate a stronger connection to an appreciation of the broader Jewish community.
*Transcribed by Rafi Davis
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.
1 We find in the discussions of Chazal and the Rishonim different ways of talking about our relationship with the tzibbur. The first is simply that a person should act the way a Jew should act, the opposite of which the Gemara calls being “poresh m’darkei hatzibur” (Masechet Rosh Hashanah 16b) — separating oneself from the proper behavior exhibited by the rest of the community. In this vein, we’re told that “kol haporesh mi’darkei tzibur ein mitaskin imo b’chol davar” — A person who “leaves klal Yisrael,” in the sense that he doesn’t act as a Jew, is cut off; when he dies, people are not supposed to sit b’aveilus over him (Masechet Evel Rabbati, Chapter 2, Mishna Torah L’Rambam, Hilchot Avel 1:10).
The fact that not conducting oneself properly is described as being “poresh min hatzibur” indicates that there is significance to being part of the tzibbur that goes beyond acting properly. That is the emphasis of our Mishna
2 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:11.
3 Ibid. 4:2-5.
4 Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:168.
5 Derech Chaim 2:4.
6 Ritva on Masechet Yevamot 13b.
7 Gur Aryeh on Sefer Devarim 14:1.
8 Sefer Devarim 14:1.
9 Melachim I 3:26.
10 Orot Hatechiah 20 andArfilei Tohar, pages 101-2.
11 Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:11. The Rambam mentions fasting with the tzibbur as well.
12 Rabbeinu Yonah to Masechet Avot 2:4.
13 See Talmud Bavli, Masechet Chagigah 9b which speaks severely about one choosing to not join his friends involved in fulfilling a mitzvah.
14 Rashi (Commentary on Masechet Avot 2:4) mentions this as well.
15 Beit HaBechirah to Masechet Avot 2:4.
16 Masechet Ta’anit 11a.
17 There are two levels to this: Simply, you can say he is not rewarded to receive their nechama. On a deeper level, he doesn’t naturally feel the nechama, because he didn’t fully internalize the tzarah of the tzibbur.
18 The Gra (in his commentary to our Mishna) references this act of Moshe.
This Midrash uses this idea to explain why Yitro (as opposed to Moshe) was excluded from the Sinaitic revelation. Yitro had not felt the pain of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim and, therefore, could not be part of the consolation of Hashem’s revelation.
19 Sefer Shemot 2:11-12. See also Shemot Rabbah 1:27.
21 Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:27.
22 Sefer Shemot 3:1-2 and Rashi.
23 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Brachot 7a and Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah V’Nesiat Kapayim 8:1.
24 Midrash Eichah Rabbah 3:3.
25 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Brachot 7a.
26 Zohar 2:41a.
27 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Brachot 30a.