In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each one of them is important:
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)
When addressing the audience, Moshe alternates between תִּשְׁמְעוּן, the plural, to לְךָ, the singular. Why?
The Gemara in Shabbos records how a non-Jew approached Shamai and offered to convert if Shamai would teach him the entire Torah, standing on one leg. Interpreting the gentile’s words as mockery, Shamai threw a piece of building rubble at him. The gentile approached Hillel and proposed the same. Hillel said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”
What was the premise of the man’s request? Clearly, the request to learn Torah on one leg is absurd, let alone to ask it of the greatest rabbis of the era. Hillel’s response is curious too. How does his answer incorporate mitzvos such as Shabbos, tefilin, tzitzis etc.?
Moreover, it is simply impossible to accomplish all 613 mitzvos, ever; many are mutually exclusive. Some are specific to gender, age, caste eg Kohanim and Levi’im, kings, during the time of the Temple and so on. One cannot possibly hope to do so.
Shamai spurned him with construction material. The imagery alludes to a building that has many sections, rooms and floors. Without multiple components, it’s not a building. In the same vein, the Torah has many levels, and many mitzvos. Without them all, the Jew is incomplete – there is no “Jew” without “the Jews”. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah cannot be actualised by an individual; it is paradoxically impossible to fulfill each and every mitzva, one must simply recognise their place in the nation.
Hillel proposed that individuals can associate with all mitzvos – a cog in the machine is inseparable from the machine itself. His directive of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ means that with unity, the rest of the Torah is innately there. The benchmark of unity is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart. A hat belongs to you, not your head. Similarly, if a Jew performs a mitzva, the entire nation tap into it. With a few simple words, Hillel explained to the gentile how to contextualise Torah directives.
Back to Moshe’s speech, he says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – keep and perform them in the plural form, which is said to the entire nation. But nonetheless, in spite of the inability of being able to actually do them all, וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual. That is, each person should keep what they are truly able, and will be rewarded as such.
This explains why it was necessary to be united at Sinai; without unity, there would be no point in receiving a Torah that could not be fulfilled.
R Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah switches from plural to singular many times, because although there is a communal responsibility, this doesn’t assuage the individual’s duty to pitch in – even if the job is done!
Everyone has to pull their weight – leave apportionment of credit to God.