The Public and The Private Me (Ideas #91)

Reflections for Yom Ha'atzmaut 5767

There is a story about a man who removed stones from his property to the public domain. A pious man saw him and said to him, You are foolish! Why are you removing stones from property that is not yours to property that is yours? The first man laughed at him.

Later, that man was forced to sell his property, walked in the public domain and tripped over those same stones.

Babba Kamma 50b

It is true that we have a G-d implanted desire to actualize ourselves and personally achieve as much as possible. Nonetheless, it is to the public domain, to mankind that we ultimately bequeath all of our achievements. In a vacuum devoid of others, our achievements would lose any true significance. Thus, the man who achieved the most in any lifetime, Moshe Rabbenu, did not receive prophecy for nearly the entire time that the Jews were wandering in the desert. Once that generation was condemned to wandering in the desert, G-d had nothing more to say to them and, once He had nothing to say to the community, He also had nothing to say to Moshe Rabbenu. Though Moshe remained as great as he ever was, a prophet without a people is meaningless. Our accomplishments matter only because we are part of a much greater whole that we can somehow improve by what we are able to achieve in our lifetime.

During my first visit to Israel, I was most impressed by a brief episode that, to me, typified Israeli society at the time. I accidentally dropped one of my contact lenses on a busy Jerusalem sidewalk. Within two minutes, about fifteen complete strangers had gathered around me to comb the street, even putting their fingers in the gutters, to help me find the lens. (As if providence were trying to prove a point, the same occurrence happened a few weeks later in a large city outside of Israel, where it took a much longer timer to elicit the help of even one passer-by.) The people helping me were a cross-section of Jerusalem, secular and religious, young and old, etc. I do not believe that their desire to help me came from a sense of religious or historical commitment rather, it was from a sense that the people of Israel live primarily as a group. When one individual is in need, the group comes together to help part of its whole. Similarly, when the group is in need, the individual puts its own needs aside. It is perhaps to this truth that the deceptively simple story in the Talmud is pointing and it is this kind of lesson that has allowed Israel to survive and flourish.

From my house, I can see an ancient fortress called the Castel where, in 1948, Jewish soldiers fought a battle that they knew they would lose. The war effort demanded that they fight it and many other such battles nonetheless. More recently, in the Othniel yeshiva, one of the students locked himself into the yeshiva kitchen with attacking terrorists, preventing them from reaching the dining room, thus saving his friends' lives at the obvious cost of his own. Our independent State of Israel is built on the willingness of Jews, both religious and secular, to fight suicidal battles in order to protect the lives of the group. As individuals they would not survive, but the Jewish people, the ultimate significance of their existence, would continue.

The national identity crisis in Israel is not only about Jews losing touch with their heritage. It is more generally about putting too much focus on our private lives. We are drawn to the pervasive and seductive individualism of the West. Drawn though we may be, it is the way of the Jew to search for meaning and to bring light into the world. We did not come back to Israel to build large suburban homes with pretty gardens. We have returned to build a nation and to create a showcase to inspire mankind. To do this, we must know that it is only the public domain that is really truly ours.