from the heart of jerusalem

To build a better world, focus on each individual


Contrary to popular myth, there is no better or worse way to lose someone close to you, but there is definitely a worst way to find out about it.

It had been a long day, and I was finally taking a few moments to relax, sitting in our small living room watching the evening news. There had been a terrible tragedy. An elite unit of paratroopers, on a mission deep in Lebanon, had gotten too spread out, and there was a heavy fog. The unit walked around a curve around until the front of the unit was almost heading back in the direction from whence they had come. Suddenly, the men on point saw silhouettes in the fog and, assuming them to be the enemy, opened fire.

As I was watching the story on the news, Dvir’s picture flashed across the screen, and I felt like the wind had been sucked out of me. I must have let out a horrible cry, because my wife came running out of the kitchen. There is no more horrible way to discover that someone special had been killed, than to see his picture on the evening news.

Years earlier, I had taken a job on the educational staff of an Israeli high school, and as I was waiting outside the principal’s office for what would be the last interview, I struck up a friendly conversation with a boy who was sitting in one of the waiting chairs. He appeared to be waiting for an unpleasant talk with the principal, and since I’ve always had a soft spot for the troublemakers, we started talking. I could tell he was a rebel, but I couldn’t help liking the kid as he flashed his mischievous, winning smile.

A short while later, as I concluded my interview with the principal, I was told I had the job, and that I would be working with the eleventh grade when the next year began. So I asked whether D’vir, whom I had just met, would be one of my students.

“Oh, don’t concern yourself with him; he’s a real troublemaker, and it looks like he’s on his way out. We’re probably going to expel him from the school; he doesn’t really fit in.” I don’t know whether I simply wanted to impress the principal, or this kid had touched something, but I offered to take him on as a project.

“Why not give him a couple of months (the current school year was a week away from being over), and I’ll take him on as a project? I think we hit it off.”

And so, when I began the school year, I was reminded that he was my project, and his future was in my hands. And a project he was, but D’vir not only made it through the system, he became one of the leaders of his class. And over the next two years I learned what a difference a little faith in someone can make.

Five years later, I watched as his coffin, draped with an Israeli flag and surrounded by his fellow paratroopers, was lowered into the ground at Har Herzl, Israel’s national military cemetery.

Of all the things D’vir Mor-Chaim represented to me, what was most powerful was the beauty and value of each individual. Everyone has something to bring to the table.

Hidden between the lines of Noach, this week’s parsha, there is a powerful idea that gives us much to think about regarding this question.

“And the whole land was one language and one speech. And it was, when they journeyed from the East (Mi’Kedem), and they found a valley in the land of Shinar and dwelled there. … And they said, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower, who’s top will be in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we are scattered upon the face of the earth.

“And G-d went down to see the city and the tower that the children of man were building.

And G-d said: ‘Behold, they are one people and one language and this is what they start to do? Behold, nothing will come of all that they plotted to do. … And G-d scattered them from there, across the face of the entire earth, and they ceased to build the city. Therefore was its name called Bavel (babble) for there did Hashem mix up (balal) the language of the entire earth, and from there did Hashem scatter across the face of the entire earth.” (11:1-9)

One would have imagined that there was at least one redeeming factor about this group of people who got themselves into so much trouble: namely, that they were all together, sharing the same goal. These were the descendants of Noach after the flood; in the context of the Torah, this is the entire world, essentially one family, living in one place. The entire world was at peace, sharing the same goals. Isn’t that the dream we are still waiting for? Why is this what G-d undoes?

A careful look at the verses tells us that even within the context of their unity, something was seriously wrong.

“Come,” the people say, “let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky” (“Havah nivneh lanu”) (11:3). The city and the tower are lanu, for us. They are involved in the most magnificent building project the world has ever known, but it’s all for themselves. Indeed, the verse continues: “Na’aseh lanu Shem” (“We will make a name for ourselves”). The new world cannot be built on the foundations of selfishness.

Do we delude ourselves into thinking that what we leave behind that really matters are the towers we build rather than the children we raise? Do we make sure our families and friends more important than our bricks and mortar? 

If what is important is bricks, which are all the same, it is because what we value most is the building, where the more uniform all the bricks are, the more beautiful and lasting the edifice. People on the other hand, are all very different.

We live in a world that places equality on a pedestal. All men are created equal, suggested a brilliant group of men some 250 years ago, and based on that fact, all people have certain inalienable rights. 

To be sure, equality is a valuable idea. The only problem is, it isn’t entirely true. Because, thank G-d, we are not all equal. Two pennies are equal, because essentially they are exactly the same. They have the same value, serve the same purpose, and most often, cannot be told apart. 

But two people are anything but the same. We are all so very different. We have different characteristics and personalities, different loves and fears and concerns, we even look different. And the fact that we are all different, means that every one of us has what to contribute. 

If we were all equal, then we could all be replaced. You can always substitute one apple for another. But people can never be replaced. And the world, without any single one of us, simply would not be the same.

Judaism suggests, that while there is great value in building up the whole, whether a whole community, nation, or even the world, such that no one individual supersedes the next, it is only as great as the value inherent in each individual. The world today speaks of equality, but Judaism begins by stressing individuality.

This is one of the dangers of an atheistic philosophy — if we are all random, having arrived simply as the evolution of what preceded us, then in the end it is too easy to arrive at the idea that the whole is the greater good, and people are expendable. It is no accident that the societies that left religion and the idea of purposeful creation behind, very soon resulted in so much human misery. More people were killed in our century as a result of Nazism, Communism, and the Khmer Rouge, to name a few, than in all the combined history of the world before. Because if each human being is just part of the large test tube of life, then in the end, what is one more or less when weighed against the goal of the common good?

But if every human being is created in the image of G-d, then there is a little bit of G-d inside every one of us, and if you can’t see a little bit of G-d in the person sitting next to you, you’ll never find Him anywhere else.

Five thousand years ago, at the dawn of civilization, an entire world was in touch with that idea, that we all are one and yet other as well. And then they got stuck, in a valley. And made the first mistake (the first chet) of the new world. The issue wasn’t the city they built, it was the reason they were building the city. 

They so loved the beauty of their oneness; they forgot the secret and the beauty of their otherness. Soon they no longer saw each other as individual worlds in the image of G-d, all they saw were the bricks, which were the vehicle for creating a society where the individual was forgotten in the search for the greater good of the whole. 

So right there, at the beginning of the world, Hashem separates us, to teach us that we are all different, and that even when we speak the same language, we all speak different languages, and that’s OK.

Perhaps this story is in parsha Noach, because while he was the most righteous person in the world, but he was righteous on his own. When the rains began to fall, Noach entered the ark alone. Perhaps he became so focused on the world as it was meant to be, he forgot all the people the world was meant to be for.

The Ohr Sameach (Rav Meir Simchah of D’vinsk) points out in his Meshech Chochmah that the sign G-d gives Noach after the flood, indicating that He will never again rain such destruction down on the entire world, is the rainbow. Why a rainbow? Why not a lightning bolt?

A rainbow provides an opportunity to see all the different colors of the spectrum, but you only get to see all those different colors when the light is refracted through the clouds. Perhaps, suggests the Ohr Sameach, this is to remind us that even in the darkest clouds, one can still find the most beautiful colors. You just have to shine a little light in there. 

When you take the time to shine that light, you see the beauty of all the different and individual colors. All the different D’vir Mor-Chaims.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.