Parshas Vayikra: What A Simple Grammatical Shift Teaches Us About The Torah’s View On Individualism & Community

Parshas Vayikra and its surrounding parshios are generally the ones that most people do not find overly interesting nor particularly satisfying to learn. This stems from a fundamental error, however. Korbanos — the primary topic of these parshios — far from being merely the ritualistic slaughtering of animals and sprinkling of blood, are really all symbolic. God states repeatedly throughout Nach that He does not care about the slaughtering of cows, but instead desires the required actions, mindset, growth, and corrections that are meant to be an outgrowth of the korban (Isaiah 1:11; Hosea 6:6; etc.). Given the deep symbolism of korbanos — despite the fact that they can no longer be carried out in action due to the lack of a Beis Hamikdash — they remain imminently relevant in thought and message. Every detail of the korbanos is meaningful and significant, then, and can and must be learned from to this day.

Indeed, we shall examine just the very first mention of a korban in Vayikra and discover a deeply profound requirement of the religious life.

A Korban Together

Leviticus 1:2:

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיהוָה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶם

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When any man [singular] of you brings an offering to the LORD, you [plural] shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock.

Rashi (1:2) is bothered by the fact that the Torah shifts from the singular in the first three quarters of the verse to the plural for the last clause. It is quite odd that the posuk begins by referring to an “אָדָם”, in the singular, that brings a korban to, seemingly inexplicably, multiple people bringing a korban with the word “תַּקְרִיבוּ” in the plural form at the end of the posuk. Rashi explains, however, that it is precisely this that the Torah is calling the reader’s attention to — sometimes a single person brings a korban, but it is also permissible for two people to bring a joint-korban together. It is to teach this very law that the Torah switches from the singular to the plural in this posuk.

Kli Yakar (1:2), however, will have none of this. Bothered by the suggestion that such a massive and inexplicable shift in the opening posuk of a sefer is meant to teach such a minor, seemingly inconsequential law, Kli Yakar proposes a different, more fundamental explanation altogether: The Torah had no choice but to employ both the singular and plural form here because both aspects are fundamental requirements in avodas HaShem. One who serves God only as an individual, or one who serves God only as a part of a larger community, is fundamentally failing in his or her avodas HaShem.

The famous teaching of Hillel “If I am not for me who is for me?; If I am for myself, what am I?” in Pirkei Avos (1:14) echoes this sentiment as well. One is meant to live simultaneously in both the individual and communal sphere. One cannot be separated from the other.

The Single Singular Section

If one examines the brachos of the shemoneh esrei one would notice that all of them are in the plural form. We pray on behalf of the entire nation, not just ourselves. Even Modim, the rather personal point during which we thank God (and which cannot even be recited by the chazan on behalf of the tzibur), is in the plural form. The entirety of the shemoneh esrei revolves around the communal reality of the Jewish people, with everyone helping everybody else.

There is, however, a glaring exception — the final section of the shemoneh esrei, elokai netzor (composed by the Amoraim), is in the singular form. This shift needs an explanation.

R’ Moshe Benovitz proposes that the Kli Yakar quoted above is the very explanation we seek. Put quite simply, it is not ideal when the communal totally swallows up the individual. There must always exist a duality, two sides of the same coin. There is no desire in Judaism to stamp out or eradicate individualism, the essence of each person’s uniqueness. As such, the shemoneh esrei could not have focused exclusively on the communal as this would be misguided. Instead, there had to also be an element of individualism as well. One can never subsume the other.

To be sure, we should learn from our peers, and we should extract the great meaning and advantages of avodas HaShem that come from identifying as a part of a community. Community teaches sensitivity, perspective, care, and allows us to better learn from history. But no community is meant to be monolithic. We do not check our identity at the door. To the contrary, Sefer Vayikra begins with the individual! There are times when God relates to us alone, and, just as the shemoneh esrei, one should never allow him or herself to descend solely into the communal aspect of religious life.

In the end, of course, “אדם יחידי נברא”, Man was created alone (Tal. Sanhedrin 38a). Ultimately, we were born alone, and we shall die alone. We are all judged not against others, but against ourselves. We stand before the Master of the Universe on our merits alone. The actions of others should not, in a vacuum, dictate our lives. We should instead strive to live the Torah ideal of the proper balance between the individual and the community, without ever letting either consume the other.

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