This week I, like most anyone with an online platform that collects personal data of individuals in any shape or form, had to deal with the new GDRP regulations from the EU. Funny enough this not-so-interesting subject led me to think about individuality in Judaism. What does Judaism have to say about Individuality?
Now, of course, it’s no coincidence that this week’s Parasha, Nasso, actually teaches us something about this same topic. Nasso talks about the offerings that the leaders of each tribe brought to the inauguration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. It’s a strange narrative as it lists these offerings repeated times – 12 to be exact – even though they were all the same!
The Torah is very precise with the use of words and is actually very concise in language, avoiding repetitions, so this passage seems superfluous and out of style. What is this trying to teach us?
First, we need to look at the name of the Parasha itself – Nasso – a word that means to lift up. This Parasha is always read either immediately before or after the Holiday of Shavuot. This teaches us that the Torah is the means through which a person can be elevated, can be lifted above his mundane reality and limitations. The Torah provides the framework through which a person can go above and beyond what is within human understanding and allow us to relate to G-d, the Infinite, on His terms.
However, often when we think about transcending our identity, we may assume this has to do think about a loss of individuality or comforming to a code of conduct, abdicating our will and individual personality. Judaism teaches us something completely different.
Judaism is a way of life that teaches the individual how to lift him/her self beyond him/herself. Meaning, the individual can now behave in a more elevated, G-dly way, without putting aside who he is, his potential, his talents, but rather bringing them all with him and using them all for a G-dly purpose.
The story is told of the Holy Arizal who could see the mission of each soul, and things about each person’s divine service through certain meditations. In particular, they say he would have each person visualize the four letter name of G-d and then ask about what they saw.
So if we were to imagine this four letter name: yud – hey- vav- hey and then I were to ask you what colors were the letters that you visualize, I bet you would all have different answers. In fact, many of you might have some background colors to those letters and all those combinations would be different.
I would be super cool if I could tell you what those color combinations mean. Sadly, I’m not that cool, yet. But what I can tell you is that it’s very unlikely that any of us has seen those letters in anything other than black ink on a white paper in a siddur. Yet, the fact that we each see them totally different says something about our individuality.
Each of us has a part of G-d – what the Alter Rebbe refers in the Book of Tanya as a chelek elokah mi maal mamash – yet each of us is able to bring a unique manifestation of of this G-dly soul to this world. Each and every person is a new facet and brings something unique in the service of G-d in this world that no-one else in the history of mankind has brought. So how do we express this individuality in the most optimal way?
The Sages hint to this when they discuss this seemingly superfluous narrative in Parashat Nasso. Even though they brought the same items, each of the leaders of the tribes brought distinct offerings because each one was bringing the items with a different intention, different perspective, emotion and motive. The spiritual energy behind the gifts was unique to each tribe and each leader’s contribution was representative of that tribe’s spiritual service. They were related to and expressed the particular mission and lineage of the tribe. Yes, the physical action might have been the same, but what was going on spiritually was unique and different.
We can learn the same about ourselves. Men may don the same tefillin, women light the same Shabbat candles, we eat the same kosher food, give the same tzedakah… do all the same universal laws of the Torah, but each mitzvah remains uniquely different.
These actions do not suggest conformity nor uniformity. Rather this format opens channels through which each individual can serve his Creator not however or whenever they deem – motivated by their own persuasions and biases – but rather, in the way that G-d wants. And therein, lies the person’s “lifting up.”
In other words, if we follow our own inspiration, one could decide to serve G-d through meditation, another through kindness, another through contemplating nature, and so on. Each person would have a different method of relating to G-d on his or her terms. This is very nice, but totally subjective and thus has a big drawback. This subjective way of serving G-d limits the person precisely because it is not the way that G-d wants, but the way the individual wants.
When the individual observes the Torah and mitzvot – G-d’s divine wisdom – then he is infusing his service with all the individuality with which he was created while at the same time elevating himself above the limitations of human comprehension, accessing infinite resources that only G-d can provide.
So, if we want to be really and truly unique – and true to our individuality – it behooves us to transcend our own selves, go beyond ourselves, and follow the seemingly uniform paradigm that our Creator, the Infinite has provided us with.