Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

You Are Not Alone

“Judaism has always looks upon the individual as if he were a little world; with the death of the individual, this little world comes to an end.”
— Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

A number of Facebook posts this week requested that people in Israel attend Max Steinberg's funeral. As a lone solider  - a soldier who decides to serve in the IDF from another country and is thus without family - Max was one of 13 killed in the fighting this past weekend. Max's friends  - and even strangers - were understandably concerned that Max would not have a lot of people to send him off to his eternal resting place. 

Max's death and the death of anyone who gives his or her life in service to others raises the profound and niggling philosophical question of the rights of the individual in relationship to the community. What is my responsibility to others? What are the limitations of my responsibility? How do I achieve community?  The quote above, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his article "The Community," stresses that each person must treat himself and be treated by others as no other. We will weave excerpts of his article into Max's story.

“Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum.

Max joined the army six months after visiting Israel with Birthright. His parents had never been to Israel. His network of family and friends there was not deep. His mother told NBC news what any mother would have: "I never thought I'd have to bury my child. It's not supposed to be that way." His mother wanted him to be buried near her in Los Angeles, but when she got to Israel, she understood why he needed to be buried there, to be near what was newly important to him.

[A human being] is a single, lonely being, not belonging to any structured collectivity. He is also a thou-related being, who co-exists in companionship with someone else.

Max's family learned something about us. Death is a gruesome teacher. But when we mourn the loss of one person, we do so as a group, a collective entity that recognizes and acknowledges that we are not whole without the presence of even one. You cannot be Jewish alone. You always exist in companionship with someone else, even at moments when you are painfully on your own.

The originality and creativity in man are rooted in his loneliness-experience, not in his social awareness. The singleness of man is responsible for his singularity; the latter, for his creativity. Social man is superficial: he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound: he creates, he is original.

Max's friends who posted their concern, need not have. Trust in our people. We show up. We are there because Max may have been a lone soldier but he was never a soldier alone. There was nothing to worry about - other than everything else to worry about - because 30,000 people were there to pay their respects to Max and to thank him for his service to his country and his people. 

Halacha [Jewish law] says to man: Don’t let your neighbor drift along the lanes of loneliness; don’t permit him to become remote and alienated from you...

Josh Flaster, who leads a group that supports lone soldiers in Israel described Max this way: "Max was a small guy with a big heart...He put himself at risk throughout his service to look after other soldiers who might have been in danger. He wasn't eight feet tall but he acted like he was."

Lonely man is a courageous man; he is a protester; he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser, a peacemaker...

We attend funerals of soldiers who are strangers because they protected us even though we are strangers. We are a world full of strangers who often exist solely because of the kindness of strangers. 

...when lonely man joins the community, he adds a new dimension to community awareness. He contributes something which no one else could have contributed. He enriches the community existentially; he is irreplaceable

Max, I don't know you. And now I never will. But I know one thing about you. You are irreplaceable.

Shabbat Shalom