Embracing Diversity and Individuality in Society
In Exodus 1:1, we encounter the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob and their households:
|1And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came:
|אוְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ:
This repetition of names in Genesis 46 might seem redundant, as we already know the sons from an earlier mention in the same chapter. Rashi explains that the sons are mentioned both in their lives and deaths, emphasizing that not one of them is forgotten; each is important. This echoes a similar concept found in Isaiah 40, where G-d calls the stars by name, and not one is missing:
26Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these, who takes out their host by number; all of them He calls by name; because of His great might and because He is strong in power, no one is missing.
|כושְׂאוּ־מָר֨וֹם עֵינֵיכֶ֚ם וּרְאוּ֙ מִֽי־בָרָ֣א אֵ֔לֶּה הַמּוֹצִ֥יא בְמִסְפָּ֖ר צְבָאָ֑ם לְכֻלָּם֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יִקְרָ֔א מֵרֹ֚ב אוֹנִים֙ וְאַמִּ֣יץ כֹּ֔חַ אִ֖ישׁ לֹ֥א נֶעְדָּֽר:
The connection to Genesis 15, where Abraham is told his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, emphasizes both the idea of a large quantity (number) of descendants and their diversity (name).
5And He took him outside, and He said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So will be your seed.”
|הוַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ:
Stars may appear the same from a distance, yet their unique characteristics become apparent up close. Similarly, in society, individuals may seem like a large, uniform group, but zooming in reveals their distinctiveness.
In our society, people are often reduced to numbers, particularly in larger organizations. The pressure to conform to an ideal of uniformity is pervasive, from dress codes to consumption trends. However, just as stars possess unique features, individuals have their own life paths, perspectives, and natures.
This context brings to mind the teachings of the Mussar teacher Salanter. While he had many students, each charted their own course and became a unique kind of teacher. Similarly, followers should learn from a Tzaddik but not seek to imitate, instead finding their own spiritual path. Children should learn from their parents but not become clones, shaping their own lives.
In Pirkei Avot 1:14, Hillel’s statement resonates:
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
Translation: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
This emphasizes the importance of the name, representing the essence of each person. Every individual must learn to be themselves and develop their essence fully. Yet, this statement also underscores the significance of “numbers” in the portion “And when I am for myself, what am I?” as one cannot live solely selfishly. The balanced perspective is that everyone must be part of society, contribute to the whole, and help others.
The story of Abraham and the stars, the repetition of names in Genesis 46, and Hillel’s statement converge to convey the message that, like stars and people, we are unique yet integral parts of a larger whole. It underscores the importance of diversity, individuality, and communal contributions in a world that sometimes leans towards uniformity.
1. Individual Significance
The repetition of names in Genesis 46, reminiscent of God calling the stars by name in Isaiah 40, highlights the individual significance of each person. This emphasizes the idea that, like stars, individuals are unique, and no one is forgotten. The story underscores the importance of recognizing and valuing the uniqueness of each person in society.
2. Balancing Individuality and Community
The teachings of the Mussar teacher Salanter and the wisdom of Hillel emphasize the balance between individual growth and contributing to the community. While individuals must strive to be true to themselves and develop their essence, there is also a responsibility to be part of society, contribute to the greater good, and help others. This balance is crucial for a harmonious and supportive community.
3. Diversity in Unity
The analogy of stars, which appear similar from a distance but reveal unique features up close, serves as a metaphor for human diversity. Despite the societal pressure for uniformity, individuals have their own distinct paths, perspectives, and natures. Embracing diversity and appreciating individuality contribute to a richer and more vibrant society.
By Angelique Sijbolts
Kol Yehuda by Rabbi Yehuda Amital
See also the blog: Pirkei Avot 1:14 – Believe in Yourself
With thanks to B. Yaniger for the inspiration and feedback
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