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You, Y'all, All Y'all

04/22/2021 10:31:49 AM


One of the more frustrating experiences in elementary school was when the entire class was punished for the rambunctiousness of a handful of individuals. “We’re all going to sit here quietly for five minutes, and if anyone makes a sound the time starts over…” As a well-behaved student who generally followed the rules, I found it a waste of time to sit there quietly while more impulsive kids got their wise-cracks in to test the teacher. Moreover, as I look back on this experience with my Masters of Jewish Education, I also wonder if punishing the entire class was a successful approach to manage classroom behavior in the first place. 

While it definitely might not have been the most strategic approach to keeping students on track, Parshiyot Acharei Mot – Kedoshim might suggest that it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Amongst a beautiful list of moral laws that qualify a community as holy like God, our Torah writes: 

(11) “You (plural/ aka y’all) shall not steal, you (plural) shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. (12) You (plural) shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your (singular) God; I am the Lord. (13) You (singular) shall not defraud your (singular) fellow. You (singular) shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you (singular) until morning. (Leviticus 19:11-13)

Juxtaposing these verses, one recognizes that the Torah jumps back and forth between talking to an individual and talking to the entire community. While this shift from individual to community happens throughout the list of moral laws (e.g between verses 9 -10, 22-23, 31- 32, and 33- 34), it is more astonishing that in verse 12, it happens within the same sentence and thought! Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman suggests that this weaving between addressing the individual and the community signifies that we aren’t only responsible for addressing our own moral behavior, but we are also responsible for creating a society that has a culture that is moral and righteous. Hoffman imagines that it is not enough just to keep yourself in line, but that we have the ability to help define what is socially acceptable behavior for others as well. Thus, while I might question the intentions of my teachers in punishing the whole class, I must admit that us “better-behaved” students did take it on ourselves to help get the more impulsive students in line. 

As we seek to live our lives righteously, it is tempting to isolate ourselves from others and adopt an attitude of “live and let live." And generally, this is a good approach since my individual opinions and approaches might not be appropriate for everyone else. Knowing when to distance ourselves from others or when to raise our voices can be a very fine line and a complicated topic. But as religious individuals who are used to wrestling with difficult concepts, I pray that we have the ability to weave between using individual and communal thinking as adeptly as our Torah; that we have the humility to focus on our own behaviors, and the wisdom to know when and how to speak up. 

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784