In memory of my uncle, Avreimi Motzen, hy’d, a brave soldier taken too early in life, who embodied this idea of individual greatness through community
About five years ago, a man by the name Aharon ran the New York City Marathon in four hours, fourteen minutes, and thirty-one seconds. That in it of itself, that’s pretty impressive. But even more impressive was the fact that Aharon was pronounced dead five years earlier. A building had collapsed on him and the first medic to reach the scene didn’t feel a pulse. Turns out he was wrong. There was a very, very faint pulse. However, there were eight pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head, all of his teeth were knocked out, his nose was dislodged, and his stomach and upper left side of his body was completely crushed.
The first of many surgeries lasted eighteen hours. After the surgery he lay in a coma for ten days. After waking from his coma, because of the trauma to his head, he had to relearn how to talk and he had to relearn how to move his body. His mind would say, move your finger – but it didn’t move. He wanted to say, I love you, to his wife – but the words couldn’t come out. With time and a lot of work, he did learn how to speak again and he did learn how to walk and move. So with six years of intensive rehab under his belt, Aharon decided to run the New York City Marathon. And he did.
Here’s a guy who could have just been extremely content with the ability to get around; to talk, to walk. But he wasn’t content with that. And so he pushed himself and pushed himself and pushed himself until he was able to do things that in the words of one of his doctors was nothing less than miraculous. He transcended his regular physical limitations and became someone else.
And this idea of transcending ourselves is an important one. Polonius has never been more popular – as a society, we love the idea of being true to thyself. Or in the words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Right?
Nowadays, it’s all about being authentic. Being real. Telling people the truth about what you think of them. Acting the way you feel like acting and not holding back in any way. And it’s very liberating to be authentic, to not have to hold back and push yourself and all that difficult stuff… but it’s also a terrible, terrible idea. Why would I want to just be myself when I can actually be so much greater? As someone recently told me, “I wish people would stop being so real and instead, would just be nice.”
Rav Tzadok HaCohen, one of the most profound Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, writes that although we are generally not allowed to lie, when it comes to growth, the only way to grow is to lie, to pretend. Because if we don’t act better than who we are inside, we’ll never become greater than who we are today.
That’s transcendence. That’s living beyond yourself. Pushing yourself. Being inauthentic for a higher cause. You don’t have the energy to run a marathon, run anyway. You’re too tired to get up for minyan, pull yourself out of bed and take a second shot of espresso. You’re itching to say something sharp in response to someone else’s behavior, bite your tongue. You don’t really have the time to study Torah, make the time. Don’t be yourself. Be better. Transcend yourself.
But there’s also an inherent danger in this type of mindset. Sometimes we are so focused on our own personal growth and self-perfection that we lose sight of our surroundings. In this week’s parsha we read the tragic story of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, who tragically died by a Divine fire on the day the Mishkan was inaugurated. What they did to deserve such a death on such a day is entirely unclear and so our sages struggle to come up with suggestions.
One possible reason, listed in the Medrashim, is that Nadav and Avihu sinned because they chose not to get married. It wasn’t that they didn’t find the right mate. They felt that a wife would hold them back, that having a family would get in the way of their pursuit of greatness. And although the greatness they pursued was spiritual in nature, G-d wanted to make it abundantly clear, most especially on the day that the holy Mishkan was built, that this is not Judaism’s idea of greatness.
Judaism stands between two conflicting values. On the one hand, our Sages (Sanhedrin) teach us that one should constantly remind themselves that bishvili nivra ha’olam, the world was created for me. What this means is that the entire beautiful world around us, the galaxies, all of it, would have been worth creating just for moi! I am that special.
Taken to the extreme though, this hyper-focus on the individual breeds a mentality shared by Nadav and Avihu. In modern terms, and in more secular terms, it breeds the rugged individualism of Ayn Rand, of the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It’s a world where I stand at the center and everything is filtered through me.
This extreme is clearly not Judaism’s worldview.
Standing diametrically opposed to the idea of bishvili nivra ha’olam we have the idea of the tzibbur, of seeing ourselves as part of the whole. However, this too, in the extreme, movements like socialism and communism are also not what Judaism stands for.
And so throughout the ages, and most specifically over the past hundred and fifty years, Jewish scholars have grappled with these two poles; individualism and community, and how to reconcile them.
Rav Shimon Shkop (introduction to Shar Yosher) suggested that we never lose our identity of self but as we grow our sense of self expands to include more people. First, as we mature our identity is tied up with family. As we grow further it’s our immediate community. And further and further until our self-identity is not lost but rather is expanded to include so much more.
Rav Soloveitchik would often speak of the tension that exists between these poles and suggest that we live with that tension, vacillating back and forth between the two, a dichotomous identity of the individual and the world.
But today, I’d like to focus on the approach of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. He suggested that it is through the community that our greatness is expressed. There is no contradiction. We find ourselves by recognizing our bond to those around us.
This sounds rather abstract. Allow me to share with you a story that will explain.
It’s actually not a new story, it’s the first part of the story I started earlier. You see, I never told you how he got stuck under the rubble of that building. Aharon is an Israeli. His full name is Aharon Karov. He was a platoon commander and 2nd Lt. in the IDF’s paratrooper unit who was called up to fight during Operation Cast Lead. Among the many jobs that his group was given, Aharon Karov and his men were tasked with sweeping some buildings in Gaza for explosives. On the second floor of one of those buildings, Aharon, who was leading his men, tripped a booby trap, causing a tremendous explosion that brought the building down.
And if we could rewind just a little more, to one important detail that took place ten days earlier. On a cold day in December of 2008, Aharon Karov got married to the love of his life, Tzivia. At 7 AM, the very next morning, Aharon was called to reserve duty.
Now according to Jewish Law and according to Israeli Law, he was exempt. He could have explained to his commander that he got married the night before. But after a long talk with his new wife, they decided to that he should go and lead his men. In his own words, “Of course I wanted to be home with my wife and not in Gaza. You don’t know when you’re going to see your wife again, you don’t know when you’re going to speak to your wife again, but you need to put all else to the side — your wife, your family, and even yourself. In Israel, if there is a war, everyone goes because there a collectivity, a community. It was clear to me, to both of us, that I had to go.”
You see, Aharon not only pushed himself to constantly become greater. He pushed himself to overcome his own needs and to identify himself with his nation. When he got that call the morning after he got married, he knew he needed to be there for the Jewish People. When he couldn’t talk or walk, or move, he pushed himself to do so, so that his wife wouldn’t be left alone. When he ran that marathon, he wasn’t doing it to show how far he came. He was actually running to raise money for charity that helped victims of terror. He lived his life for others.
That’s what Rav Lichtenstein was referring to. Like Aharon Karov, we can find our true self, our qualities and greatness can flourish, when we recognize how connected we are to those around us.
This sense that we belong to something greater than ourselves is something we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives. It’s the feeling we get when our sports team wins a championship, when our home country wins a gold. On a deeper level, it’s that feeling that many of us get, particularly at this time of year, when we commemorate Yom HaShoah, and feel a collective sense of grief, whether or not we lost family in the Holocaust. It’s the collective feeling of joy that we experience on Yom Ha’atzmaut for the fact that we, as a people, have a homeland, even if we don’t live there.
But it’s not just about feeling it, it’s making sure we are acting on it. When it’s hard to get up in the morning, or to find the time, or to bite my tongue, transcending myself means pushing myself because I recognize my choices impact your choices. When I can’t find the inner strength to do what’s right, to do so anyway, if not for myself, then for my family, for my community. That’s transcendence in the most beautiful and blissful fashion. When you care so deeply about the world around you, their joys are your joys, their sadness is yours as well, and your every decision is guided by how your life impacts others.
In a world of extreme individualism it’s hard to appreciate the collectivist mindset, but stories of people like Aharaon Karov and all the many soldiers we mourn this week on Yom HaZikaron, remind me how beautiful and important that mindset is, how our Jewishness is not just a team we root for, it’s our identity. And the more we appreciate that, the more we see the world through those eyes, the more energy and the more passion we can find within.