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E Pluribus Unum: “Out of the Many, One”

E Pluribus Unum: “Out of the Many, One”

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Our founding fathers came to these shores fleeing religious persecution. They wanted to establish a society that would become a paradigm for all mankind. The last thing these refugees wanted is that the oppressed would become oppressors. And so, at the core of their vision were safeguards to ensure freedom and tolerance.

They did not seek to establish a homogeneous populace; freedom of personal expression was one of their guiding principles. Although they wanted to build a unified nation, they realized that differences do not necessarily lead to division, and that oneness can be multifaceted. Rather than throw everyone into a melting pot, they sought to show how McCarthies, Pulaskies, and Cohens can retain their unique national traditions and yet, join together and forge a unified society.

A wonder of G‑d’s creation is that, although the face of every human being is essentially the same, no two people are identical. As facial features differ, so too, the workings of no two minds are alike.1

Since differences are an inherent dimension of G‑d’s Creation; no society should try to stifle them. They should not only be tolerated, but encouraged as a springboard for growth.

This attitude is reflected in the history of America. From its earliest beginnings, it sought to grant every man the potential to fully develop himself, in the belief that this would be in society’s best interests.

One of the great Chassidic Rebbeim, Reb Zuschia often said: “When I appear before the heavenly court, they are not going to ask me why wasn’t I as great as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They’re going to ask me why wasn’t I as great as Zuschia could have been? Why didn’t I develop all my potential to the fullest?

Other societies exist in which leaders — some with altruistic motives, others craving wealth and power — enforce conformity. The most telling examples in contemporary history are Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, where the “I” was sacrificed on the altar of the State.

The resultant dictatorships perpetrated barbarities unparalleled in human history. Without a system of checks and balances to protect individual rights, it is almost inevitable that these rights will be trampled.

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were marred by a fundamental flaw. Not only were large groups disenfranchised and persecuted, but they embodied no valid framework for the entire populace. Even the state’s supporters suffered.

Russia collapsed from within. America won the Cold War, not because of the strength of its armies, but because its society was more vibrant and productive. The fall of Communism is a sign that the human spirit will not agree to be stifled. To earn the right to exist, a government must provide its people with equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

America has always nourished “individualism,” allowing its citizens to develop and express themselves, confident that harmony can be achieved.

If I am “I” and you are “you,” then I can be “I” and you can be “you,” but if I am “you” and you are “I,” I cannot be “I,” nor can you be “you” (classic Chassidic adage).

Our Sages describe2 the human body as a world in microcosm, consisting of many limbs and organs, each with its own structure and function. These differences allow the body to work successfully as a unified organism.

Our organs and limbs are pervaded by a consciousness of self. Organs do not exist as independent entities, but as part of a whole. The body’s health depends on this interrelationship. Illness and infirmity in any part detracts from the health of the entire body.

Similarly, the development of harmony and oneness in society need not be impeded by the existence of divergent qualities among its citizens. Every person has unique gifts: differences between people should be seen as resources to be shared by all, rather than as sources of competition and strife.

During the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, Mayor David Dinkins visited the Rebbe and asked for a blessing for peace between the two peoples, Jews and blacks. The Rebbe told him: “Don’t say two peoples. One people, under one government and under one G‑d.”

A unity that permits no diversity is a limited concept; there is but a single hue. Unity thus becomes only surface-deep. By contrast, a unity that recognizes diversity can thrive. This “unity in diversity” implies a shared acceptance of an inner truth. Common principles and ideals have the power to bring together people with different abilities.

So, interdependence is a desirable facet of American life. More can be accomplished when people with varied gifts pull together.

In this context, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Powerful energies are generated in the creation of a new community. To refer to Jewish law: the communal prayers of a minyan (a quorum of ten men) are considered far superior to ten individual prayers.

This has a reciprocal effect on the people themselves, for when people of different backgrounds join together, they must each grow by tapping resources within themselves. Every new addition to society enriches it, cumulatively and exponentially.

This is very much the story of America, a land which has assimilated new groups since its creation. When our founding fathers chose the maxim: “Out of the Many, One,” they did not want the oneness to obscure the plurality. Instead, with freedom and tolerance enshrined as the foundation of its system of values, America evolved into a society which teaches every individual to flourish, accentuating every group’s contribution to the cultural mosaic. As this society encompassed a greater variety of people, it gained strength and vibrancy, until it became the leading culture in the world.

On Sukkos, we are commanded to bring together four species of plants: the date palm (lulav), the citron (esrog), the myrtle (hadas) and the willow (aravos). These species are noticeably different from one another. The esrog has both a pleasant taste and a pleasing fragrance. The date has a pleasant taste but no fragrance. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance but no taste, and the willow has neither pleasing fragrance nor taste.

Our Sages3 explain that taste symbolizes Torah study,4 while fragrance symbolizes the observance of Jewish practice.5 Thus, each of the four species represents a different type of individual. The esrog represents a person who studies Torah and observes Jewish practice, the lulav one who studies Torah but does not observe Jewish practice, the myrtle one who observes but does not study, and the willow a Jew who neither studies Torah nor observes.

This commandment demonstrates that no individual can attain fulfillment unless he is willing to join his fellow man. Even the esrog, the species which symbolizes both Torah study and Jewish practice, cannot be used unless it is held together with the humble willow. By the same token, no matter how much we develop ourselves as individuals, we cannot realize our full potential without the help of others.

An obvious question arises. When you have uniformity. decision-making does not pose a problem, for there are no divergent opinions. How is it then possible for different entities to function as an integrated whole?

Taken to its extreme, a society composed of willful individuals and isolated groups could lead to excessive self-concern and eventual anarchy. Even with moderation, there is likely to be friction and strife as every sub-unit tries to protect itself and further its own vested interests.

How can these difficulties be avoided or resolved?

First, through knowledge. The very awareness of the positive nature of difference leads to tolerance, and prevents the kind of bigotry that leads to persecution. From the very beginning of American life, it was understood that there is enough room for everyone, and no need for one person’s success to come at the expense of another. G‑d can provide ample blessings for all.

True, there have been periods of intense competition and times when one group took unfair advantage of another. Still, by and large, Americans have accepted the premise that by working hard, they can carve out a slice of the pie large enough to provide for themselves and their families, without taking from someone else.

When describing our obligations to our fellow man, Maimonides6 lists eight levels of charity. The highest of these levels is not giving money, but rather finding a job for the needy person. For the most complete manner of helping another person is to enable him to stand on his own two feet.

The second cornerstone of unity in American society is democracy — abiding by the will of the majority. If there are two or more approaches to a given problem, the one that enjoys the broadest base of popular support is adopted.

It must be emphasized that the democratic process is not a football game where one team wins and the other loses. In a football game, the losers can be commended for a good try, for sportsmanship and for many other virtues, but the fact remains: they lost.

This runs counter to the nature of democracy, which is a synergistic social contract. If the majority imposes its will on the minority without respect for their rights and principles, then the “winners” will have lost. For although they might temporarily enjoy the fruits of victory, they will cease to enjoy cooperation and harmony, and these are the real blessings in any society.

A democracy requires sacrifices by both the majority and the minority. The minority must make the sacrifice of accepting the will of the majority, and the majority must learn to understand and cooperate with the minority.

When a person is elected to public office, his job is not merely to work for the benefit of his supporters. He must serve his entire constituency, those who voted for him and those who did not. A patronizing public official who rewards the private interests of his supporters without acting for the benefit of the entire community will be rejected by all those who value the democratic process.

Democracy is thus the active unifying force within our society, the catalyst that eases communication between different groups and sectors. It breeds positive change, leading to a cross-fertilization of ideas that transcends party lines.

The concept of majority rule is also followed in Halachah, Jewish law. When there is a difference of opinion among Sages, a vote is taken and the law is decided according to the majority view.

The classic difference of opinion in the Talmud was between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. In most cases, the opinion of the School of Hillel is followed, for they were more numerous. Nevertheless, the School of Hillel would also pay respect to the School of Shammai. Not only would they mention the dissenting opinion; they would mention it before stating their own views.7

When someone tries to resolve an interpersonal conflict, he will rarely achieve harmony by favoring one side and telling the other: “You’re wrong, so you’ll have to concede.” Success in mediation comes by introducing a perspective that recognizes both views while affording new insight. When this happens, there is no opposition, there is understanding. The two sides have a framework in which to define their positions, and the two perspectives complement each other.

Similarly, in a democratic society, harmony between the different power groups can be achieved by focusing on authentic principles which transcend any and all private interest.

G‑d has imprinted principles of truth and justice into the fabric of our existence, and these should serve as the basis of our social contract.

This hints at the interrelation of the two axioms chosen by our Founding Fathers. “In G‑d We Trust” is stamped on the front of all our currency, for this is the primary lesson. And our shared trust in G‑d leads toE Pluribus Unum, generating the potential to weld the different elements of our society into a comprehensive whole. For an honest commitment to G‑d enables a person to overcome the natural tendency toward self-interest and to consider the welfare of others.

Our Sages describe8 the motifwith which G‑d created the world as follows: “He did not create it for chaos, but to be settled and inhabited.” Tohu, the Hebrew term translated as chaos, is identified with self-interest and egocentricity.

From the very beginning of human existence, self-interest has been the source of all envy, competition, strife and war. This self-interest defeats G‑d’s purpose in Creation.

G‑d created the world to be settled and inhabited, so that people from all backgrounds and cultures would coexist in harmony, creating societies that promote growth and development.

Today, on a personal, communal and global level, the very nature of our civilization encourages differences and yet disparages isolationism. Never before have the lives of so many been so closely intertwined, as global economics and communications bring people together from all over the world. Never before have these associations produced so much positive energy.

For almost six years, on every Sunday until Sunday, the 26th of Adar, 5752 (the day before he suffered the stroke which left him partially paralyzed), the Rebbe would stand in the entrance of 770 for hours on end, receiving people from all walks of life and giving them dollars to distribute for charity.

Every week, thousands would come. Some asked for blessings at a turning point in their lives. Others came because of a problem, and still others came seeking inspiration. There were probably as many reasons as there were people in line.

The lineups represented a true cross-section of international Jewry: venerable sages, children, communal leaders, visitors from every country, the observant and the not-yet-observant, political figures from the US and Israel, and amcha Yidden, the Jewish man-in-the-street, by the thousands.

One hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1991, an elderly lady was patiently waiting her turn in the long line of women and girls, each anticipating the Rebbe’s blessing and the dollar to be given to tzedakah.

When her turn finally came, the lady blurted out in her simple Yiddish: “Rebbe! I’ve been standing here for only an hour and I’m already exhausted. You have been standing here for hours and hours, and just look...!

The Rebbe smiled gently and said: “When you are counting diamonds, you don’t get tired.”

Footnotes
1.
Sanhedrin 38a.
2.
Tanchuma, Pikudei, sec. 3.
3.
Vayikra Rabbah 30:12.
4.
Understanding the Torah affords a concrete pleasure, similar to the experience of a pleasing flavor. Indeed, the Hebrew word taam means both “taste” and “reason.”
5.
We often do not understand the reasons for observance, and thus it may be less tangibly gratifying than Torah study is, in much the same way that smelling something is less gratifying than tasting it.
6.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Matanos Aniyim, ch. 10.
7.
Eruvin 13b.
8.
Yeshayahu 45:18.
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