Judaism offers balance between individual, community needs


In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people stand on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the Land of Israel. They are commanded to make war with the people they will encounter there and to, “drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their molten images, and devastate all their high places; And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and live in it; for I have given you the land to possess it. (Numbers, 33:50-54)”

War, which requires risking one’s life, is by definition a matter of ultimate principles more important to those who wage it than life itself.

War, which by its nature must be worth dying for, would seem an ultimate, absolute conviction with no place for caveats or provisos.

But such is not the case in the Torah’s view. In Deuteronomy chapter 20, we are told that the officers of the army must address the people before battle and say: “Who is the man who has built a new house, and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the battle, and another man dedicates it. And what man is he who has planted a vineyard, and has not yet eaten of it? Let him also go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eats of it. And what man is there who has betrothed a wife, and has not taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the battle, and another man takes her.”

In contrast, at the end of last week’s portion, when two tribes wish to settle alone on the eastern side of the Jordan, Moses makes clear that they may not abdicate their responsibilities to their brethren, the People of Israel as a whole, but must go to war with their brethren to win the land to the west of the Jordan though they do not wish to occupy that part of the land.

Do the needs of the community trump the needs and vision of the individual, or can the needs of the few, of individuals, truly outweigh the needs of the many?

How are we to reconcile these opposite values, both of which seem to be important to Judaism?

Judaism’s views and standards outline a beautiful and balanced dance. The community’s values, needs and vision are of utmost importance.

But even in a war, the moment of greatest communal convergence, we are cognizant of the individual and their personal interests.

In contrast, the individual, even though made in the image of the Divine, must be willing selflessly to perform duty and self sacrifice on behalf of their brethren and nation.

May we take instruction from this Torah portion to hold central both the needs of our community as a whole and the awareness that each person in it is an infinite individual who must be heard, respected, and cared for.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, of Bais Abraham Congregation, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.