On The Uniqueness of Each Individual Jew
The very first pasuk of parshat Shemot states:
And these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Yaakov; each man and his household came.
The Torah proceeds to list the names of eleven of the sons of Yaakov; then a reference to Yosef living in Mitzrayim concludes the segment (Rashi explains why Yosef was singled out).
The Torah previously listed Yaakov’s sons by name during their lifetime (see Bereshit 35:23-26, 46:8-27 (also identifying the grandchildren), and 49:1-28). Rashi picks up on this and notes that Hashem also counted Yaakov’s sons after their deaths to show how precious they were to Him. Rashi adds that the counting was done by name because Yaakov’s sons are compared to the stars, which Hashem also counts by number and by name.
In his sefer Ta’am V’Da’as, Rav Sternbuch seeks to understand the analogy between Yaakov’s sons and the stars. He explains that just as each star has a specific purpose in the cosmic scheme that differentiates it from all other stars, so too each Jew has his or her special purpose in life as expressed through his or her unique soul.
Let’s develop this concept of the uniqueness of the individual Jew.
According to Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, the uniqueness of each Jew is an important educational concept that is often overlooked. In an essay entitled, "Lessons from Jacob and Esav," Rav Hirsch first argues that even though they were twins, Yaakov and Esav were "completely different from one another in their inborn character traits." Yaakov, on the one hand, was someone with a thirst for knowledge, moral refinement and spiritual perfection. Esav, on the other hand, was someone who "delighted in challenging the forces of nature." He was a man of action who enjoyed using his physical skills, and had "neither the taste nor the talent for making conquests in the realm of knowledge."
Yet, despite these differences, the brothers received the same style of education, and were encouraged to pursue the same activities and goals. As a result, Esav concluded that the traditions of Avraham could only be realized within the narrow confines of the spirit and the intellect, and there was no role in the Abrahamatic tradition for someone, like himself, with different (more physical) impulses and interests. The opportunity missed was showing Esav how even someone with inclinations such as his "could play an important role in the attainment of the goals set by the covenant of Abraham." That is, Esav’s innate talents and abilities might have been channeled towards the service of Hashem had his upbringing and education been modified to reflect his unique traits.
(note: Esav’s latent potential for good, unrealized though it was, is also reflected in the comments of Rashi to Bereshit 32:23 where he states that Yaakov was wrong to hide Dina from Esav because had she married Esav, she might have turned him around and inspired him towards virtuous conduct; Yaakov was punished for missing this opportunity to redeem Esav when Dina was abducted by Shechem).
Based on this analysis, Rav Hirsch elaborates that fulfilling the destiny of the Jewish people requires "the talents of every nuance in the multi-colored spectrum of individual personalities and abilities." As he further states:
"Any strength and ability that is utilized in the service of [Hashem]. . .has equal standing [in the eyes of Hashem]. For the establishment of [G-d’s] Kingdom [on earth] requires Jewish farmers and artisans no less than Jewish scholars and sages, Jewish merchants and soldiers no less than Jewish priests and teachers. The Will of G-d can and must be done in field and forest, on the sea, in hovels and palaces, in workshops and at offices, in lecture halls and classrooms, in courtrooms and factories…"
This is the message, says Rav Hirsch, of the repeated enumeration by name of Yaakov’s sons in the Torah. In particular, Rav Hirsch points to the unique blessing bestowed on each son by Yaakov on his deathbed as demonstrating Yaakov’s recognition of the individuality of each of his children.
So too in the field of education, Rav Hirsch urges attempting to uncover the unique traits of each child to ensure that each child is educated appropriately in a manner best suited to his or her interests and inclinations. Which includes showing each child how it is possible to remain a loyal and enthusiastic Torah Jew irrespective of the path they choose in life (whether it be in the world of knowledge or the world of physical action).
As we read in Mishlei (22:6): "Chanoch la’na’ar al pi darko; gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimehna – Train the youth according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not swerve from it." There is a unique path appropriate for each child, and the goal of the parents and schools is to identify that path and nurture the child accordingly. Doing so, will ensure that the child remains true to the path of Torah to old age irrespective of their path in life.
There is a second angle to the concept of the uniqueness of each Jew – one that highlights the high value the Torah attributes to each individual.
In many other cultures and religions, the elite in society seek to secure their power by diminishing the role and value of the individual in society. In the most extreme example -- a dictatorship -- individuality has no place, and ignorance of the masses is bliss (from the dictator’s standpoint).
In contrast, the Torah recognizes that each individual Jew as important with a role to play in the community and contributions to make. Wisdom is respected and celebrated; ignorance looked down upon. Education is valued.
It seems to me that this important distinction is at the heart of Yitro’s objection to Moshe’s initial approach to "running" the nation (so to speak), and the solution Yitro recommends.
Upon learning that Moshe was working solo day and night to address the disputes and inquiries of the entire Jewish nation, Yitro stated:
"Lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh – navol tibol gam atah gam ha’am hazeh imach, ki kaved mimcha hadavar lo tuchal asahu levadecha."
"The thing that you do is not good. You will surely weary – you, as well as this people that is with you – because the matter is heavier than you, you will not be able to do it alone."
Rashi interprets "navol tibol" as "wither." But a question arises as follows. Surely it is understandable that Moshe will wither – i.e., weaken – from attending to all of the needs of Bnei Yisroel on his own, day and night. But the pasuk also says that this approach will cause Bnei Yisroel to wither as well – "navol tibol, gam atah [i.e., Moseh], gam ha’am hazeh imach [i.e., Bnei Yisroel too]."
Why should Bnei Yisroel weaken? They’re not the ones doing all the hard work. For each pair of litigants, Moshe might spend, say, 10-15 minutes hearing and resolving their dispute, or in the case of an individual supplicant, 10-15 minutes hearing a personal issue and providing advice. And then the individuals go home, and it is only Moshe who remains and continues to hear new disputes and stories day and night. It is only Moshe who will grow weary. Why also the nation of Israel?
Perhaps the answer lies again with an observation of Rav Hirsch who notes that phrase "navol tibol" can also allude to the term "naval" – a degenerate, morally degraded person. Perhaps it is in this sense that Bnei Yisroel would suffer from the approach adopted by Moshe. For if Moshe is the only one resolving disputes and dispensing advice, he is essentially creating a situation where all knowledge and wisdom resides in a single person. While Moshe was certainly the most humble of individuals, the model of all power centralized in a single leader did not bode well for the future of the nation of Israel since future leaders, less humble and more interested in selfish ends, might abuse that model to suppress the people. And the people themselves – the masses –would become ignorant and inconsequential , and in this sense, would become a degenerate, morally degraded nation.
One need only look at numerous societies around the world to see how a dictatorship can cause the masses to become oppressed, uneducated, and degraded.
Instead, what Yitro envisioned as far superior was a model of society where wisdom and knowledge is dispersed widely throughout the nation. Where every individual has the means and opportunity to acquire the wisdom and traits to become a judge of, and advisor to his peers. Individuality counts.
Indeed, according to Rav Hirsch’s calculations, Yitro’s recommendation would lead to the appointment of 78,600 judges. With 600,000 men over the age of twenty and under sixty, that meant every seventh or eighth man would be a judge. To which Rav Hirsch adds:
"Indeed, every good and honest man who had some knowledge of the Torah was fit to be a judge in Israel. Every man of Israel is expected to live an honest life and not to be ignorant of the Torah."
Knowing how highly the Jewish people, historically, have valued education, it seems we have Yitro to thank for insisting on a community structure to promote this value at the outset.
Which brings us full circle - the model of Yitro, accepted and implemented by Moshe, being consistent with the concept discussed at the outset – that is, the uniqueness of each individual Jew, and the expectation that each Jew has unique contributions to make to the Jewish community.