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Balancing individual, collective fulfillment

A few weeks back, my wife and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary. Along with a profound sense of gratitude for the decades of steadfast partnership, our Yom Nissuin (wedding anniversary) was a time to reflect back on the many changes we have undergone, as well as the shifts and changes that society has experienced over the years we have been together as a couple.

Among the more humorous of our recollections are the memories of the many years we spent taking long plane rides with our four (at the time) young children. We giggled gleefully as we reminisced about how much “stuff” we used to pack for each and every one of those excursions. Not surprisingly, what was most vivid in both of our minds were the four portable DVD players and dozens of DVDs that we schlepped on each of our trips. These were the “distractions” that we carried with us so that our little ones were engaged  and entertained.

Now that our “Rose Buds” are young adults, they no longer require the DVD players (does anyone even own these anymore?), but they surely never leave home without other kinds of diversions, chief among them their iPhones. These personal, handheld devices give them almost unlimited access to real-time information and almost limitless opportunities for entertainment. 

Surely, as these technological conveniences attest, we live in a time of individualism, hyperexistentialism and the ability to  nourish as never before, the “sacred self.” And this can be a tremendous source of meaning and consequence. 

Self-actualization and self-fulfillment are, in the right measure, great blessings. Yet when they become the entirety of our earthly oeuvre, we miss out on an aspect of our existence that is central to our unique way of living and which is captured in this week’s Torah reading.

This Shabbat, at the opening of the sixth Aliyah of Parashat VaEtchanan, according to the annual cycle of the reading of our Holy Writ, we encounter some of the most famous verses of Jewish tradition. These P’sukim include the Shema Yisrael and the verses of what is colloquially referred to as the VeAhavta (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9):

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

As we read and repeat these verses so regularly, we might gloss over and miss out on a radical, yet seminal, lesson for postmoderns. The first verse -— the Shema Yisrael — calls out to all of us, the entire House of Israel. It unifies our community under the banner of the collective, the “we,” Am Yisrael, the totality of the People of Israel. And then immediately after  this communal appeal is a statement directed to each and every member of our Kehillah — on an individual, personal basis. VeAahavta — and you, each of you, each of us — shall love the Lord our God with all of our individual heart, soul, and physical strength and emotional prowess. 

Living out our sacred calling as members of an Am Segulah, a treasured nation, does not demand that we lose ourselves in the abyss of the indistinguishable collectivity of our Peoplehood. Neither does it encourage the notion that the individual is the exclusive center of the universe or cosmos. Rather, it is a balancing act, a tightrope that we are beckoned to traverse in our quest for integration, wholeness and holiness.   

As we reflect on these potentially conflicting aspirations, we would be wise to recall the insightful teaching of the Hassidic master Reb Simchah Bunim Bonhart of Peshischah (Poland, mid-1700s): 

“Every one of us must have two pockets, with a note in each, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and there find the words: ‘For my sake was the entire universe created.’  But when feeling arrogant, high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ ”

As we read once again the hallowed words of the Shema Yisrael along with the phrases of the VeAhavta in our shuls this Shabbat, may we redouble our commitment to achieving both national/collective as well as individual/existential fulfillment. And in this nuanced, balanced and integrated way, each of us and all of us can live up to our highest and noblest callings as unique and distinct individual members of an elevated and extraordinary nation. Amen! 

With blessings for a Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick senior rabbinic chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.