Judaism: Day 18 – The Individual vs. the Community

Today’s Mishnah from the Pirkei Avot reads:

Rabbi says: Which is the proper path that a person should choose for himself? Whatever [path] is a credit to himself and earns him the esteem of fellow men.

Be as scrupulous in performing a “minor” mitzvah as in a “major” one, for you do not know the rewards for the [respective] mitzvos. 

Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward, and the rewards of a sin against its cost.

Consider three things, that you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you – a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book. 

I’d like to focus on the first two sentences (bolded).

In the commentary, the rabbis acknowledge the cardinal principle that man has free will, which means every person is free to choose his own path, for better or worse.

What this suggests is that everyone is a unique individual, capable of crafting his or her own identity.

However, the next sentence encourages the individual to not only do things for himself, but to also earn the “esteem of fellow men.”

The rabbis offer the following interpretations in the commentary:

  • One should follow “the golden mean,” which means avoiding extremism. Moderation is pleasant to the self and to others.
  • One should follow the golden rule, “do unto others as you have them do unto you.”
  • One should act in an honorable way that others can emulate. If you donate all your money to charity, you are setting an example that others cannot follow, thus demonstrating “extreme” behavior.
  • One should act in a way that is pleasing to God and to man. Don’t do something that is technically “halacha” (in accord with Jewish law), if it will anger the community and vice versa. Choose a course that meets both criteria.
  • One should attempt to “beautify the mitzvos.” For example, purchasing a beautiful Torah scroll so that others will praise and honor the mitzvos.
  • In a rebuke to the above point, though it is ok to beautify the mitzvos, one should not seek to impress people to draw attention to yourself. The focus should be on the mitzvos.

The rabbis were smart about social dynamics. They understood that even if you were attempting to lead a pious life, it wouldn’t serve you well to anger the community while doing so.

This balancing act is something we do everyday. At least most of us do. I struggle with this issue at work. Modern corporate culture requires you to subsume your individual goals and desires for the goals of the company, at least during work hours.

At work, think of all the things you don’t say or do because it would offend someone, even if you think your way is the correct course of action.

The most successful employees find ways to get their ideas heard and their plans executed without alienating others. To use corporate speak, they get “buy-in.”

The least successful employees just suffer in silence or get fired for insubordination and such.

This balance is difficult to achieve. On one side, we have the desire to live a life according to our own values, which I believe is important. On the other side, we are social creatures and in order to flourish as human beings, we have to learn to live peacefully with others and help them when possible.

Scripture sums up Torah observance as: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). Our practices might not always be socially acceptable or in the political mainstream, and we must at times stand aloof and apart, but our deeds, our conduct and our demeanor must always radiate love and pleasantness to all. – Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld