Shabbat candles: 7:46 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Havdalah: 8:48 p.m.
Time magazine created quite a stir when its May 20, 2013 cover story slammed millennials as “the Me Me Me Generation.” Critics quickly pointed to equal or greater egocentrism from Gen X and Baby Boomers. Historically minded observers went back farther still. The entire enterprise of modernity rests on glorifying the individual. Hence, Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to inalienable human rights. Also, modern economics built on Adam Smith’s assumption of rational individuals pursuing their own interests as solitary economic agents. In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau announced the absolute sovereignty of individual free will; in 1855 Walt Whitman wrote a poem to “celebrate myself.” Rampant individualism is hardly new.
The obvious danger is individualism developing with indifference to society, on one hand, and to tradition, on the other. How do we balance the individual self with the need to maintain a social fabric and to give due deference to a past which (as Mordecai Kaplan put it) should at least get a vote, if not a veto.
Traditional Jewish texts frame the matter differently. It is not just the individual and society that require consideration, for there is a third term to the human equation: God. Too much stress on the individual promotes rampant egoism; too much emphasis on society produces fascist collectivities that run roughshod over individuals for the putative national good. Positing God as the final arbiter over individual and society proclaims a third and higher value.
Not for nothing, then, do the Ten Commandments (reiterated this week after first appearing in Exodus) begin with the blanket claim, “I am the Eternal your God.” The Rabbis don’t call them “Ten Commandments,” actually; they prefer “aseret hadibrot,” “the ten things” that should guide us. And the first of these “things,” they insist, is the recognition of God as the eternal “I” who instructs both individuals and society.
God’s appearance as an “I” is all-important, for it makes God an individual like ourselves, an “I,” moreover, whom each of us can emulate, because, like God, we too are aware of being “selves,” a personal “I” that persists through time and circumstance. The last four books of Torah provide laws for all of Israel, for the social order, that is; but the first book, Genesis, is a set of biographies, an ambling preamble about a collection of human “I”s struggling to grow in league with God.
Yet the human “I” can indeed get out of control, as conservatives have rightly argued. Torah agrees, as we see from a fascinating interpretation of the recollection, this week, that back at Sinai, the Israelites were too frightened to hear God directly and required Moses to intercede. “I [!] stood between you and God back then,” Moses says. But the word “stood” appears in the present tense, leading chasidic voices to say, “It is the ‘I’ — our own “I” — that regularly stands between ourselves and God.
We have diverse selves, it turns out: an egoistic “I” that stands between us and God; but also a sacred “I” that strives to emulate the “I” whom we call God, the “I” that cares for justice, exercises compassion, and takes people out of slavery. It is the sacred “I” that internalizes the “ten things” of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and promotes a life of honor and goodness.
“The self is not a thing,” says philosopher Roger Scruton. It is a perspective, and “perspectives are not in the world but on the world.” Only God and human beings have this perspective from on high, our own narrative of the world we inhabit and the self we strive to be. This certainty of self is not the product of rational argument; it arrives automatically to consciousness. Call it, if you will, the soul — that part of us that we simply know we are and cannot imagine losing. It is what most unites us with God.
That we, like God, can say “I” is the miracle of miracles.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College, and is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).