When Moshe recounts to the people in his repetition of the Torah, he tells them how each Jew 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 heed 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)
Moshe addresses the audience but changes from תִּשְׁמְעוּן, the plural, to לְךָ, the singular. Why?
There is a famous story in Gemara Shabbos. A non-Jew approached Shamai and offered to convert if Shamai would teach him all of Torah while he was standing on one leg. Interpreting the gentile’s words as mockery, Shamai threw a piece of rubble from a building at him. He approached Hillel and put forward the same request. Hillel said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, go 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, tefillin, bris mila, mezuzah etc.?
It is said in the name of the Arizal that every Jew must perform every single one of the 613 mitzvos, or their soul returns in another form, a gilgul, to complete what is missing. But it is impossible to accomplish all 613 mitzvos; many are mutually exclusive. Some are specific to gender, age, caste eg Kohanim and Leviim, kings, during the time of the Temple etc. Does this mean that everyone comes back as a gilgul many, many times so that they could fulfill each and every mitzva in the Torah?
This was precisely what the gentile was asking – teach me Torah on one רגל – in one lifetime, with no gilgul. רגל can mean “time” as seen when Bilam strikes his donkey: וַיִּפְתַּח ה’ אֶת פִּי הָאָתוֹן וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם מֶה עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים: The Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Bilam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” (22:28) Alternatively, Kabbalistic interpretation aside, he simply wanted to perform all mitzvos, resulting in the same difficulty that an individual cannot possibly do so. Shamai beat him with construction material. This alludes to a building, that has many floors. Without multiple components, it’s not a building. Torah has many levels, and many mitzvos. Without them all, the soul is incomplete.
Shamai was telling the gentile that the Torah cannot be actualised in a single lifetime; it is paradoxically impossible to fulfill each and every mitzva.Hillel proposed an answer through unity. His directive of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ meant that once unity was achieved, the rest of the Torah would follow. The benchmark of unity is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart. It is not a man’s that have shoes, but the man. Similarly, of one Jew performs a mitzva, the entire nation tap into the mitzva. With three simple words, Hillel explained to the gentile how to perform 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 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 – Jewish unity will ensure each individual gets included in what they can’t manage.