Man is a lonely creature. No other inhabitant of G‑d's world harbors a sense of individuality as pronounced and as determined as that cultivated by the human being; no other creature perceives itself as apart and distinct of its fellows as we do.

Yet we are also the most social of creatures, weaving intricate webs of familial and communal relations in our quest for validation and acceptance by others. Never content to merely be ourselves, we group by profession, class, nationality and other providers of a self-definition that transcends the personal.

If we are aware of a contradiction between our individual and communal identities, this does not lessen our need and striving for both. For while we are convinced that we are what we make of ourselves, we also know that alone, we are less than what we are and can be. In the words of the great sage Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14).

The Passover Offering

Hillel's paradox confronts us in countless guises every day of our lives. In Hillel's own life, it took the form of a question of Torah law that was instrumental in his ascension (in the year 32 bce) to the leadership of his people: Should the Passover offering be brought when the 14th of Nissan falls on Shabbat?

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the primary vehicle of man's service of his Creator were the korbanot (animal and meal offerings) offered on its altar to G‑d. The korbanot fall under two general categories:

a) Individual offerings (korbanot yachid) brought by private citizens, such as the "generosity offering" brought as a donation, the "thanksgiving offering" brought to express one's gratitude to G‑d for a personal salvation, or the "sin offering" brought to atone for a transgression.

b) Communal offerings (korbanot tzibbur), such as the daily morning and afternoon offerings brought by the people of Israel as a whole from a fund to which every Jew contributed an annual half-shekel.

While most offerings belong completely to one class or the other, the Passover offering straddles both categories. On the one hand, it possesses certain features (such as the fact that it is purchased with private funds and eaten by those who brought it) which would define it as an "individual offering"; on the other hand, there are things about it that are characteristic of the "communal offering" (such as the fact that it is brought en masse by "the entire community of the congregation of Israel"-- Exodus 12:6).1

When the 14th of Nissan—the day on which the Passover offering is brought—falls on a Shabbat, the question of its categorization becomes crucial. Torah law forbids the bringing of individual offerings on Shabbat, but permits and obligates the bringing of communal offerings. Should the Passover offering be regarded as an individual offering which cannot be brought on Shabbat? or is it a communal offering whose obligation supersedes the prohibition of work on the day of rest?

The Talmud relates that one year when Nissan 14 fell on Shabbat, the leaders of the Sanhedrin (highest court of Torah law) were unable to resolve the question of whether the Passover offering should be brought. Hillel, a scholar newly arrived in the Holy Land from Babylonia, demonstrated that the communal aspect of the Passover offering is its more dominant element, meaning that it should be offered also when its appointed time coincides with Shabbat. In recognition of his superior scholarship, the leaders of the Sanhedrin stepped down and appointed Hillel as their head.

Isaiah and Jeremiah

Echoing Moses' description (in Deuteronomy 4:34) of the Exodus as a time when G‑d "took a nation from the womb of a nation," the prophet Ezekiel describes the event as the "birth" of the Jewish people. Before the Exodus, the Jews shared a common ancestry, culture and heritage, but they did not constitute a nation; on that first Passover, the entity Israel was born.

Passover can thus be seen as representing the ascendancy of the communal over the individual—the point at which numerous distinct personalities surrendered to a common mission and identity. Indeed, as Hillel showed, in the Passover offering it is the communal element which dominates and determines the halachic status of the korban.

So why isn't the Passover offering a full-fledged communal offering like the others? Why is it a hybrid of the individual and the communal, in which both elements find expression and vie for supremacy? Because G‑d's purpose in forging many individuals into a single people was not the obliteration of their individuality, but the inclusion of each member's distinct personality within the communal whole. The "community of Israel" is not just a vehicle for the transcendence of the limitations of individuality and the attainment of goals unachievable by ego-encumbered individuals; it is also the framework within which each individual might optimally develop and realize his or her personal best.

Our relationship with G‑d includes both individual offerings, which represent the devotion of our individual resources to G‑d, as well as communal offerings, which express the surrender of our individuality to our communal mission. But the Passover offering, which played a formative role in our birth as a people, must belong to both categories.2

As the offering that marks the birth of the nation Israel, the Passover offering must express our commonality as G‑d's people; this is indeed its dominant theme. But it must also express the truth that even as we set aside our differences to devote ourselves to a common goal, our individual strengths and vulnerabilities continue to define us as distinct and unique entities. It must express the truth that the paradox of individuality and community is at the heart of who and what we are, and that the tension between these two strivings is a necessary and desirable component of our relationship with G‑d.

Even at the very end of days, when the whole of human history culminates in the divinely perfect and harmonious age of Moshiach, this duality will continue to define our identity and nationhood. The ultimate redemption will be a communal redemption, when, as the prophet Jeremiah proclaims, "A great community shall return here; but it will also be the realization of Isaiah's vision of a time when You shall be collected, one by one, O children of Israel."3