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When we honor and express our unique strengths as individuals, we create true unity in the Jewish People.

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Honoring Differences

Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

By Braha Bender

 

Human beings are greater than the sum of our parts. However, we shine most brightly only when each of those parts is honored for what it is. Trying to force a leg to behave like an arm misses out on the strengths of both. Similarly, trying to force a body to behave like a soul is ridiculous. Souls do not need sleep or exercise, but bodies do.

When we provide our body with its needs - sleep, exercise, excellent nutrition, and more - we are priming the instrument of our soul, the horse for the rider. At the same time, when we acknowledge and act on what our soul is all about - kindness, studying Torah, connecting with other people, and many other elevated pursuits - we give our bodies a taste of the divine. We give an experience of eternal meaning to something that will one day decompose. How important is that?

Caring for the needs of both our bodies and our souls leads to harmony and achievements that are essential to both. The same is true nationally as individually. It is when we honor and express our unique strengths as individuals that we create true unity in the Jewish People. Understanding our differences and working in tandem is what gives the Jewish People that elusive element of greatness beyond what any individual may achieve alone.

 

Individualized Communication Strategies

The giving of the Torah at Sinai set a standard for the expression of this principle:

“Moshe ascended to G-d, and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to Bais Ya’acov (the House of Jacob) and relate to B’nei Yisrael (the Sons of Israel)…” (Shmos-Exodus 19:3)

Poetic license? Not in this code book. Rashi explains:

“’To Bais Ya’acov’ - these are the women. Say to them, with gentle language. ‘To B’nei Yisrael’ – state explicitly to the men punishments and fine details, matters as harsh as [the bitter herb] giddin.” (Rashi ibid)

Hashem told Moshe to speak to the women first. The women would be the first group to understand what was about to occur because Torah was given to women no less than to men. Nonetheless, the women were to be spoken to differently.

Recent studies have indicated that male and female brains function differently. Empirically proven communication differences between men and women have spurred entire movements. Hashem told Moshe to capitalize on those differences. We achieve most when our strengths are honored rather than ignored.

 

Specialization Versus Conformity

Of course, appreciating each individual for what he or she is doesn’t come easy. We tend to generalize others towards our own mold, assuming that if something makes sense to me, it must make sense to her, and if something is desirable to me, it must be desirable to him.

But what happens when others disagree? It doesn’t make sense to her because she thinks differently. It isn’t desirable to him because he wants to do things differently. A lot has been said in recent decades about the value of feminine leadership. Women function differently and their strengths, uniquely feminine, are needed. Just as are men’s’.

Torah divides the Jewish People into twelve unique tribes, three unique social strata - Priests, Levites, and Israel - and numerous other division systems determining the obligations and opportunities incumbent upon individuals. However, far from being a tyrannical system akin to patriarchy or communism, what distinguishes Torah is that every individual is charged to have a personal relationship with a rabbi or rebbetzin who can help him or her identify his or her unique next step for growth.

Role assignment is dangerous when the individual has no voice or choice. In contrast, the Torah system - especially having a personal rabbi – creates specialization based on individual, unique strengths. Just like in any healthy body, corporation, or family, blanket uniformity serves no one. To stand together we must first each stand.

The most important question, though, is what are we standing for?

 

The Joy of Maturity

Just like the soul to the body, our various strengths only become meaningful when they are united towards a common goal. The Torah was given in a way that honored differences, but at a time when all those differences had come together.

Maturity is the key:

“On the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.” (ibid 1-2)

Our sages point out that this encampment differed from any prior:

“Great is peace, for in regards to all the journeys it is written ‘and they traveled’, ‘and they encamped’ – [the use of the plural indicates that] they traveled bickering and they encamped bickering. Once they arrived before Mount Sinai, [the use of the singular indicates that] they all became a single encampment: ‘…and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain’. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: Behold, this is the hour that I give Torah to Israel.” (Midrash VaYikra Rabba 9:9)

Did you know that the word Shalom is one of the names of G-d? It is when we are all united in Jewish peace, a peace based not on uniformity but on collaboration, that this aspect of G-d is expressed. Mishley (Proverbs) explains about Torah that, “Darcheha darkey noam… Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.”

Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Shimon Green says, “If it’s not noam, it’s not Torah.” Torah might be challenging, but it will never be ugly. Torah might ask a lot of you, but if you’re studying and practicing the real thing, it will not leave you broken. It will leave you more whole. That’s noam. And that’s shalom.

That’s the state we were in when we reached Sinai. Torah strengthened our individual senses of self in the context of a single, extraordinary uniting purpose. Today we can choose the maturity to respect ourselves and others for who we really are. We can use those strengths not to foster bickering, but to foster true unity. We can continue to bring what happened at Sinai to life.


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