The singular and the plural

The singular and the plural

Ekev - Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

In this week’s parsha, Ekev, we read the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, V’haya im shamo’a. The first paragraph, V’ahavta, appeared in last week’s parsha.

At first, they seem similar; each speaks of loving God with all one’s heart and soul, teaching one’s children, and reciting these words at home and away, evening and morning.

For example, the first paragraph says (6:8): “Ukshartam l’ot al yadecha v’hayu l’totafot bein einecha.” The second (11:18): “Ukshartem otam l’ot al yedchem v’hayu l’totafot bein eineichem.” The English translation is identical — “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead” — but there is a significant difference in the Hebrew.

This difference is masked in the English because the modern tongue does not have different words for you, the individual, and you, the group. In Hebrew, the “you” in the first paragraph is singular while the “you” in the second paragraph is plural.

Why? Traditionally, the first paragraph of the Sh’ma is known as “kabalat ol malchut shamayim,” “accepting the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.” Recognizing God’s sovereignty, feeling awe and love for God, can be done only by an individual. The second paragraph is known as kabalat ol hamitzvot,” “accepting the yoke of the commandments.” We perform mitzvot in society, with and among other people.

But it’s more than that. At the beginning of the Torah, after the creation of the first human being, God says, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam l’vado,” “It’s not good for the human being to be alone.” In context, this is about the creation of male and female and the importance of marriage. But we also understand it to mean it is not good, perhaps not possible, to be a Jew alone.

In Pirkei Avot, Hillel teaches, “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Partly, this is practical; you need a critical mass of Jews to support the services needed for living a Jewish life — a kosher butcher, a minyan, a mohel, a mikva, schools, a cemetery. It’s true that with transportation and communications technology it’s possible to provide much of what is needed to those living in isolated areas, but it’s much easier to be a Jew in New Jersey than in Iowa.

Still, it’s more than a matter of practicality. Our need for community goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. In the first blessing of the Amida, we address “Our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” This is how we introduce ourselves as we approach God because our relationship to God is not only individual but also familial. What defines a Jew is not belief in a creed or performance of specific rituals, but being born (or adopted through conversion) into the Jewish people.

From time to time, a congregant has asked me, “Why do I need a minyan to say Kaddish? Why can’t I say it by myself at home or at a beautiful place?” My answer is that on one level, obviously, you can say whatever you want wherever you happen to be — no one is going to stop you. But it’s not the Jewish way.

We are not a random collection of individuals. We are a people, an extended family. And so we relate to God and to each other in both the singular and the plural.

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