The Power of One
The Aseret Hadbirot (Shmot 20:1-14) are all spoken in the singular. Hashem tells each individual at Har Sinai “I brought YOU out from Egypt…”, and while there are several differences in the version repeated by Moshe Rabbenu in the book of Devarim, particularly in the fourth, fifth and tenth utterances, it is still presented quite clearly, in the singular form. From this observation, we can derive the message that the Torah, her mitzvot, and the responsibility of maintaining moral and religious integrity falls squarely on each and every individual. The midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 21) highlights this when it says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that just as when one thousand people would look into the ocean, each of them would say ‘it reflects me’ –
כך הקדוש ברוך הוא היה מביט בכל אחד ואחד מישראל ואומר אנכי ה’ אלקיך
’ — Thus did Hakadosh Baruch Hu look into each and every Israelite and say, ‘I am the Lord your G-d.’”
Hashem imparts to us this eternal message that every individual matters. Just as Hashem lovingly counts us in the desert because every person is a precious diamond in His eyes, so too, every individual is directly informed of the directives of the Torah with a unique responsibility and a tremendous potential to uphold Torah ideals of justice, honesty, generosity and upright behavior. We have emunah that every person has his or her unique role in this world, as we are meant to say “בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם -the world was created for me,” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) meaning one individual is as important as an entire world (Rashi on Sanhedrin 37a) and we are placed here for a reason. We are not always privy to appreciating the ramifications of our choices or the ripple effect of our actions.
In the last five chapters of Shoftim we have the opportunity to learn from dishonorable and unscrupulous choices made by distinct individuals which then magnifies to large groups of people. In Shoftim chapters 17-18, what starts as a personal matter of a son stealing from his mother in the hills of Ephraim snowballs into an entire tribe committing theft and following the same misguided religious practices of pesel Michah for centuries. In Shoftim chapters 19-21, what begins as a private tale about a man and a woman devolves into a description of an abhorrent Sdom like society and the near annihilation of an entire tribe in Israel. We see from our history how the actions of individuals can have major negative ramifications for the nation as a whole.
But we do not despair, as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov encouraged (Likutei Moharan, 2:112): “If you believe that it is possible to destroy, believe it is possible to repair!”. In the opening verse of Megillat Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, we are informed that this story of redemption occurred in the disillusioned days of the Shoftim. Just as individuals incited violence and corruption in the book of Shoftim, so too individuals spark kindness, principles and virtue in Megillat Ruth. Boaz looks after Ruth’s welfare, protects her, and is cautious to respect her and not take advantage of her vulnerable position which stands in stark contrast to the horrific treatment of the pilegesh (Shoftim 19). Similarly, Ruth clings to ideals, belief in God and loyalty to a maternal figure, in distinction to Michah who stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his own mother (Shoftim 17).
Just as the choices of individuals can bring about destruction, so too, the choices of individuals can bring hope, new life and the beginning of a new era for the Jewish People. The sixth of Sivan also marks the passing of David HaMelech (great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz) and of the Baal shem Tov (d 1760), a descendant from the Davidic line. Stories about the Besht abound that resonate with this very message: that a simple pure hearted individual is so precious and so holy and has tremendous power to change the world. What choice that you make today might affect the future of tomorrow? We might never know. But we do know this:
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה־טּוֹב וּמָה־ה’ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם־עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם־אֱלֹקיךָ
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God. (Michah 6:8)