In the stories of the middle phase of Yakov’s life, the recurring theme is internal clashes within the family. There is a constant tension between Rachel and Leah, and it spills down to their children as well when the brothers hate Yosef for being the favorite.
To be sure, multiple moments mark them out as great humans, such as when Rachel recognized her father for the scoundrel he was and gave Leah the secret code signals on what was supposed to be Rachel’s wedding day so that Leah wouldn’t be discovered and humiliated; or when Yosef saved his family from starvation when he could have taken revenge.
But as much as we hold these individuals up as our righteous and saintly ancestors, and even bless our children after them, they seem to compete and fight rather often, vying for Yakov’s attention.
What are we supposed to make of it? Is it every man and woman for themselves? Utter ruthlessness to assert ourselves, whatever it takes?
R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz cautions us against this superficial analysis.
Some things are constant, like the characteristics of Avraham, defined by his loving outreach and warm, kind heart, and God promises that Avraham’s name would be the one we highlight in our prayers – מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם.
But past that common denominator, perfection looks different from person to person, and it doesn’t follow that what’s good for me will work for you. The correct perspective to understand these stories – and ourselves- is that we are all different people with different personalities and perspectives, with different responsibilities requiring different things.
The stories of Yakov’s family are of people vying to leave their mark, fighting to contribute, fighting to matter, fighting to leave an impact, and it’s something we should notice that our greats tend to do, raising their voices to draw out individuality and avoid homogeneity. These clashes are not about a winning ideology; they’re about making sure that different voices exist.
The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. On the contrary, the Torah is indisputably tolerant of pluralism, the existence of different voices. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. Your voice and existence are not fungible. You are not replaceable, and we need you to shine.
There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.
It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.
Sure, we have a group identity, but there is also individuality, and everyone expresses their sparkle in their own unique way.
As much as the world has gotten smaller in a certain sense, our world is also bigger today than it’s ever been, so it’s not zero-sum. Opportunities are abundant all around us, and we mustn’t be shy about shining in whatever way we do it best.
Because our world will only sparkle when we do.