Personal Autonomy and the Community

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5777/2016
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Life is full of compromises—both in our families and in our communities and in our own individual thinking. So often, we are presented with two or three equal goods or necessities and must somehow adjudicate their values and come up with a way to proceed. According to Tradition, it is the same for God. On the one hand, we are taught, God has a sense of absolute justice and desperately wants for justice to prevail absolutely. On the other hand, God loves us profoundly and realizes that we are not perfect. If God were to insist absolutely on justice, God’s precious creation could not continue. So, we are taught: For what does the Holy One pray? That מדת רחמים the Divine sense of Compassion will always be stronger than מדת דין  the Divine Sense of Justice.1 That’s what God is praying today.

A Biblical example of compromises comes in the story of the Daughters of Zelophechad in Book of Numbers. In Chapter 27, we learn that Zelophechad was an Israelite man who died in the wilderness before the portions of the Promised Land were assigned. Since women did not inherit land, his five daughters faced landlessness and approached Moses to see if an exception could be made. Could they inherit their father’s anticipated allotment in order for his memory be preserved in Israel? Moses approached God, and God agreed with the women. The five daughters of Zelophechad would be allowed to inherit the land intended for their father. This was in Chapter 27.

However, by the time we get to Chapter 36, the leaders of their tribe, Manasseh, realize a potential problem. Since land generally is inherited by sons, and since a son’s tribal identity comes from his father, if one or more of the daughters married someone from another tribe, their portion of land would eventually become part of that other tribe’s territory. They were not just being greedy or picky. The whole sense of tribal identity and community would be threatened. So, Moses consulted God again and came up with a compromise. The daughters, Machlah, Tirtzah, Hoglah, Milkah, and No’ah, could still inherit their father’s land, but they had to marry someone from their own tribe, and that is just what the five daughters did. 

What we do not know is whether this was okay or a problem for any or all of the women. It is possible that marrying men from the tribe was perfectly fine—that this is what they would have preferred anyway. But, it is also possible that one or more of the women would have had to cede some of her personal autonomy for the sake of the community. 

I think most of us agree that freedom and individual liberty are of utmost importance. Personal autonomy is one of the greatest gifts of the modern age, and it is something we defend furiously. None of us like being told what to do, and one can often detect this principle at the heart of many political arguments. It is why some people do not like socialized medicine. It is why Americans are grievously offended at the European practice of evaluating children at young ages and then pushing them in various non-academic directions. It is why many of us feel perfectly comfortable exceeding the speed limits on highways. We do not like anyone telling us what to do. And yet, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where sacrificing personal autonomy is necessary—necessary for greater goals or even for our own long-term happiness. 

When these demands confront us, how do we respond? Do we acquiesce and voluntarily make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good, or do we stand on our autonomy? Sometimes, of course, we are forced to cede our autonomy—by governments or bosses or family pressure. But often, the only force involved is from our own moral sensibilities. Do we please ourselves, or do we do some things for the sake of the group?

There are also various gradations in these kinds of situations. It is one thing to pay an extra $5.00 over the internet price so you can patronize a local merchant and keep that local business in town, but it is another thing entirely to say that you cannot marry someone from another tribe. Moreover, in each given circumstance, there are complexities to consider as we value the various goods we seek. Throughout our lives, we find ourselves striving for balance—sometimes working for ourselves and other times sacrificing something of ourselves for a greater good. It is like Hillel counseled so long ago:

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. 
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” 
We need to take care of ourselves. On the other hand,
וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. 
“But if I am only for myself, what am I?”  
Something of our value as human beings depends on how much we devote ourselves to others, to communal concerns.
And, of course, the Yom Kippur kicker:
וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
“And if not now, when?”
If an improvement needs to be made, perhaps the time is now.

Each individual decision has its own specifics, and each of us has our own situations to manage. Nonetheless, we can be guided by certain principles from our Tradition, and I would like to share three of them with you this evening.

First: There is value in the process of inclusion—in gathering everyone into the fabric of belonging. A text for this principle will come in the afternoon’s Torah reading, from Deuteronomy 29. When we stand before God to comprise our covenant community, everyone is included: 

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם 
שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל: טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם 
וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ: 
“You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; the captains of your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the strangers in your camp, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water.”
Moreover, even the absent are included in the communal pact: 
כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ 
וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם:
“It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this
oath—but with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.”
This sense of affiliation—of being part of a sacred community—
is precious, in and of itself. It is a blessing worth experiencing, and it is a blessing worthy extending to others.

Second: Some effort is required to keep the community together. Hillel speaks of this in a simple but profound piece of advice:    

            אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר.
“Do not separate yourself from the community.” 

As a member of a family or a community, there are times when we are needed. Whether it is our time or attention or prosperity or good will, we are urged to join ourselves to the goals of the group and to enhance both ourselves and the group. 

It can be demanding, like when the Talmud counsels,

שֶׁכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל עָבֵרִים זֶה בַזֶּה.
“All Israel is responsible one for the other.”

We can regard this kind of responsibility as an onerous invasion of our personal space OR we can see it as an opportunity for significance—for doing something meaningful in our lives. 

The payoff of group participation can be described in an old saying of the early Zionist philosophers:   לִבְנוֹת וּלְהִבָּנוֹת  By building the Land, the builder himself/herself will be built into a better human being. Being part of a good and holy group is good for us. That’s why we should endeavor to find such a group and to join ourselves to its purpose.

Third: Our Jewish notion of a sacred covenantal community is not just philosophical. The principles are developed and expressed in concrete actions. Some examples:

We should practice respect for the elderly, as we read in Leviticus (19.32):

מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:
“Rise before the aged, honor the elderly, 
and revere  your God.  I am the Lord.”

We should insist upon justice and righteousness. In Deuteronomy (16.20), we read:

 צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף.
“Justice justice shall you pursue.”

This is not talking about some justice some of the time. We should live lives of justice all the time.

We should pursue peace and an atmosphere of neighborliness, 
as Hillel said:

הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, 
אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה:
“Be of the disciples of Aaron, 
loving peace and pursuing peace, 
loving all people and bringing them close to Torah.”

This weaving and caring for the social fabric is so important that the Sages spoke of it in eternal terms: 
“These are the things, the fruits of which a person enjoys in this world, while the principal endures for the World-to-Come: to honor father and mother; to perform acts of love and kindness; to attend the house of study daily; to welcome the stranger; to visit the sick; to rejoice with bride and groom; to accompany the deceased to their rest; to pray with sincerity; to make peace between one another. " 

This is the holy life. This is a way we can find meaning in our lives. This is the way our sacred community can work.

We do not know if the limitation of potential marriage partners was a problem for the daughters of Zelophechad. In that ancient world—that ancient tribal social scene, it could have been a problem, or it could have been no imposition at all. So it is with us in our negotiations with autonomy and communal responsibility. Sometimes, it’s easy to be supportive of the community; our autonomy is barely ruffled. Sometimes, however, it may be a problem, and it is in those situations where we must seriously weigh inconvenience or difficulty or even sacrifice against the real value of supporting and participating in a community. There is value in pleasing ourselves. There is value in helping others. 

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. 
וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  
But if I am only for myself, what am I?  
And if not now, when?”