Haman approached Achashveirosh and told him that the Jewish people were “mefuzar umforad” (scattered and separated among the peoples). Haman was demonstrating the vulnerability of the Jewish people because there was no achdut (unity), collective responsibility, or shared purpose. Each year at Purim, while we celebrate our diversity we must also re-commit to our mission of preserving and building our cherished eternal people. As fragmentation and enmity perpetuate, this sacred task is more crucial than ever before.
Why did the rabbis have so much faith in individuals? Why did they believe that we are capable of such heroism? Are we taught to embrace collective responsibility because we want to empower others or because we will be responsible for their wrongs? Going deeper, is Judaism primarily an individualistic religion, accountable primarily to one’s self, or a collectivist one where the benefits for all are paramount? For us to wrestle with these questions, we have to consider carefully the contextual and epistemological obstacles that Jews are forced to face. The divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, between collective struggles and individualistic liberty is present and real. But learning to reconcile these different dreams into a reality of common cooperation for Jews, indeed all the peoples, is beyond a philosophical imperative: It’s a call to action.
While Jews are commanded to show compassion to all human beings (ahavat ha’briot), there is also a unique mitzvah to love a fellow Jew (ahavat Yisrael) and take responsibility for fellow Jews (arvut). This principle is concerned primarily with helping others to actualize mitzvot (Sanhedrin 27b; Rosh Hashanah 29a; Sota 37b) but also with preventing aveirot (wrongs):
Regarding all sins in the Torah, a person is punished for what he did, and here [regarding an oath taken in vain], he is punished for what he did and for what the whole world did… And regarding all the sins in the Torah, this is not so? But surely it is written: "And they shall fall, each upon his brother" (Vayikra 26:37) – each person because of the sin of his fellow. This teaches that all of Israel are responsible one for the other! That is where they can object, but they failed to do so (Shevuot 39a-b).
Further, the Jewish people are held accountable for collective wrongs:
Whoever can prevent his household [from sinning] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household; [if he can prevent] his townspeople, he is seized for [the sins of] his townspeople; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world… (Shabbat 54b).
Not only do we need help one another, we need to learn from one another, foster relationships and act in solidarity when the times call for it. All Jews are needed in the spiritual enterprise of learning Torah, whether in the study halls or out on the streets. The Sages taught that a wise individual is someone who can learn from anyone and everyone (Avot 4:1). Likewise, Rav Yehuda HaLevi explained that all Jews are like instruments. To make a symphony, you can’t only have a piccolo, a kazoo, and some violas. You need timpani and trumpets, oboes and xylophone, tubas and pianos; you need heart and soul. In their quintessential esoteric wisdom, the Kabbalists taught that each Jew represents a single letter of Torah. Just as if one letter is missing on a Torah scroll and the entire thing becomes void, so it is with the Jewish people. Rav Yoel Sirkis, the Bach, taught that to “give us our share of your Torah” (v’tein chelkeinu b’Toratecha) means that every individual has a specific and special portion that only he or she can reveal. Each individual is crucial to the collective.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein argued, based on Yerushalmi Sotah 7:5, that when Jews returned to the land of Israel and achieved sovereignty arvut (responsibility for one another) has increased. This raises interesting questions about our era. Perhaps other factors of modernity and post-modernity – the decreasing proximity we have to people on the other side of the world - have raised the stakes of our responsibility as well. To continue growing spiritually, we have to journey beyond the familiar. Our first steps are to create pluralistic communities where any and all Jews can learn from one another while honoring the diverse values inherent in any community. The second step is to build our community and work to repair the world together. Further, we are to cultivate love for one another and stand up for one another when attacked. Even if we do not agree with each other on anything, the shared fate and destiny of the Jewish people rests on the sacred integrity and wisdom we have cultivated for millennia.
We have been chosen for a unique and crucial mission in the world: not merely to survive but to thrive in fulfilling our global mission to make the world more just and holy. Never again should Haman be equipped to argue that we are vulnerable to outside threat due to our internal arrogant pettiness. We may oscillate between embracing diversity and striving for unity but we must be absolutely unequivocal about our commitment to a culture respect, tolerance, and collaboration.