“Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman…
So begins a short story by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. In it, the character of the Harlequin is effectively “chased down” by the unrelenting Ticktockman. I am not prepared to critique this short story, nor am I able to determine all the symbolism intended by Ellison. What I do recall from reading this story is the powerful sense of how the modern world grinds down the precious individuality and integrity of life.
The story resonates because we have all internalized the sense of the modern world taking away the thing that makes us most essential.
Colleges, which identify us not by our names but by our student identification numbers. Bureaucracies in which we simply don’t exist except by Social Security number. Vast subway systems in which seeming automatons push through the turnstiles, filling nondescript subway cars in which we look down at our feet rather than risk catching the eye of another person.
“I am a father!”
“I am a student!”
“I am a nurse!”
We want to cry out that we are individuals of worth and value. But the modern world seems not to care. The modern world, particularly in great urban settings, quickly challenges any sense of individuality, uniqueness, and b’shvili nivra haolam. Such a sense of self vanishes the skyscrapers rising forty and more stories into the sky.
“Who am I?” one wonders. There are thousands, millions, of others in those buildings. Who could “get to know” so many neighbors! And, without knowing my closest neighbors, who am I indeed?
Who can forget the infamous Genovese case, when over thirty people in Queens, New York watched from their windows as a young woman was stabbed to death, and not one called the police? If only it was a singular event. It is not.
Physicians race past the scene of an accident, their fear of a lawsuit more powerful than their desire to use their skill to help. Man has been depersonalized and marginalized. He has become the sum of his statistical probabilities rather than a breathing, caring, emotive being.
In this vast impersonal-ness how does one find his individuality and a community to embrace him?
What a unique being we are! For we require both our individuality and our belonging. One without the other and we are less that we were meant to be. Too much individual and we become selfish and demanding; too much “community” and our individual selves are lost in the noise of the modern world.
Where is the balance?
Let us consider the minyan. Ten individuals. One group. The yid is both an individual and at the same time fully part of a larger collective. One individual, singular and exclusive among ten other singular and exclusive “ones”.
Should one yidele be absent, the minyan cannot address God in full glory and shevach; we may not recite any davar sh’bekdusha.
“When a corpse is found fallen in the field in the land God is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who the murderer is. Your elders and judges must go out and measure … The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it.’”
Torah law does not allow for an individual to be left to his own fate. Every individual member of a community must be embraced by the community and by its leadership. The community as a whole is responsible for the fate of each individual, his well-being, safety, and security.
Rashi calls our attention to the obvious question – Would anyone ever imagine or suggest that the elders, righteous, moral, and pious, would have murdered this strange passerby? The simple answer is, No. But it is not the action that is being considered. It is that the tone and attitude of a community are defined by the leadership. The way we relate to an individual and his needs filters down from on high; Elah lo reinuhu opatrunuhu belo melonot u’blo levaya (Sota 45).
A group, a community that does not react strongly and expeditiously to monstrous acts is a society whose leadership is oblivious to the fate of the individual. A society which allows arch terrorists to address the United Nations is a society adrift, a society without leadership. A society which remains silent as millions are exterminated is a society with bloodied hands.
So too, a society whose leaders look the other way when its most innocent members, its children, are made vulnerable. Have we not heard too much about the leaders of religious communities turning a blind eye to the predators in their midst? No group can be blameless. The Jewish community too must do everything in its power to protect the most precious amongst us, our children, and it need not be prompted to meaningful and concrete action by horrific tragedies such as we mourned over earlier this summer. There can be no excuse or rationalization for those who prey upon our most glorious promise and possession.*
Children, indeed all individuals are safe, secure, and sound only as long as their leaders are concerned about their personal protection and security, and willing to take whatever measures are necessary to guarantee that security.
Our parasha begins with the words: Shoftim veshotrim titen lecha” – judges and bailiffs shall you appoint in all of your gates.” The emphasis is on the singular. Lecha. For you. Only when the rights and liberties of individuals are protected and secured do the judges become legitimate leaders of a Jewish society.
The Likutei Yehuda points out that genuine and authentic leadership represented by the shoftim follows the theme of the festivals (at the end of Re’eh) which incorporates the concern for the underprivileged; the orphan, widow and ger. This is no mere coincidence. Wherever the Torah speaks of mishpat, it simultaneously teaches about tzedakah (Veshamru derech Hashem lasot tzedakah umishpat; mishpat utzedakah beyaakov atah asita.) There can be no true and moral justice or meaningful leadership without concurrent concern for the individual, particularly for the individual whose life, safety, and security would otherwise not be guaranteed.
The Rambam writes in the second chapter of Hilchot Teshuva (2), “Since the scapegoat, sair hamishtaleach, was an atonement for all Israel, the High Priest made confession over it in the name of all Israel, as it is said “and he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel.”
Rav Soloveitchik explains that since the sair is a korban tzibur, the atonement which it attains is a collective one. The individual is not forgiven directly but through the atonement granted to the tzibur as a whole, and each individual Jew partakes of this atonement as a member of the klal. Each Jew is granted atonement on Yom Kippur as an individual, and indirect atonement through the channel of the general kaparah granted to the klal.
On Yom Kippur we pray, Melekh mochail visolaiach la’avonotainu, God who forgives our sins as individuals; vla’avonot amo bait yisroel – and the sins of the house of Israel. A collective.
To be a member of the Jewish community means to never lose a sense of individuality. The Jewish community, the tzibur, is not simply a gathering of individuals, lost in the relentlessness of time. It is a wholeness, a mysterious singularity to which every single Jew belongs.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president, marketing and communication.
*Please Note, the text of the OU2011 Convention Resolution, “Condemning and Combating Child Abuse” is printed below:
The Orthodox Union is mindful of the Rabbinical Council of America’s recent resolution condemning and combating child abuse.
We ask that the community act in conformity with the Rabbinical Council of America’s resolution. The Orthodox Union will assist communities in doing so as previously stated in resolutions put forward in the years 2000 and 2002.
Below please find the Rabbinical Council of America’s recent resolution condemning and combating child abuse:
Whereas we have become increasingly aware of incidents of the sexual and physical abuse of children in our community; and
Whereas, there have been a number of high profile cases in which Orthodox rabbis have been indicted or convicted for child abuse or child endangerment; and
Whereas the lives and futures of many of these victims and their families are harmed in significant ways: suicide, post traumatic stress syndrome, inability to form healthy relationships, inability to develop healthy intimate relationships, etc.; and
Whereas many victims of abuse in our community still remain silent and do not come forward to accuse perpetrators or seek help for fear of stigma, personal and familial consequences, or perceived halakhic concerns; and
Whereas the Rabbinical Council of America has resolved through past resolutions its condemnation of abuse and its censure of abusers, and has affirmed, under the guidance and direction of its poskim (Rabbinic decisors,) that the prohibitions of mesirah (reporting crimes to the civil authorities) and arka’ot (adjudication in civil courts) do not apply in cases of abuse and in fact, it is halachically obligatory to make such reports; and
Whereas reiterating this long held position can serve to provide pastoral and halakhic leadership, support, direction and affirmation to abuse survivors and their families and advocates.
Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America resolves that
- It reaffirms its unqualified condemnation of all forms of child abuse.
- It reaffirms its halakhic position that the prohibitions of mesirah and arka’ot do not apply in cases of abuse.
- It will regularly issue on its website and to the media appropriate statements of condemnation when public attention is drawn to a case in which Jews are either victims or perpetrators of abuse.
- It will regularly evaluate the competence of its members in understanding and responding to issues of child abuse and initiate training and continuing educational opportunities for all of its members in this area every year.
- The members of the RCA address the issues of child abuse in their communities in at least one sermon, lecture or article within the next twelve months, and that contact information for local abuse services be displayed in a public place in all synagogues, schools, and Jewish community institutions serviced by its members.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.