Your mother told you so many times. Your high school principal didn’t seem so convinced. Certainly not your employer.

But it’s true. And even more: You are not just the center of the world—you are the entire world.

It’s an explicit Mishnah:

Every human being is unique, and every human being is a copy of the prototype human being (Adam)…therefore, every human being must say, “For my sake the world was created.”1

As for humility, well, yes, humility is what makes you a nice guy, but it can also be totally out of place.

As the Baal Shem Tov taught, humility in the wrong place can subvert a person’s purpose in life. Humility in the right place means knowing you’re no more special than anyone else (we’ll get to that later) and therefore you shouldn’t lord yourself over others. Humility in the wrong place means imagining you’re not special at all. And so the world can get by just as well without you.

“You’ve got to know,” the Baal Shem Tov, would say (okay, I’m paraphrasing just a little), “that everything depends on you. That with every beautiful mitzvah you do the universe resonates in blissful harmony that heals and nurtures, and if you mess up, the whole cosmic symphony falls apart in a cacophonous crash, taking down myriads of the heavenly host in its wake.”

“Because if you act with misplaced humility, saying, ‘Who am I, this lowly meat-patty with eyeballs, that anything I do should have significance in the cosmic scheme of things? Who am I, that the Creator of this infinitely-sized operation should take notice of my deeds?’—so you’ll just go off and do whatever you feel like, bringing your entire world down with you.”

“But when you are aware of that the Master of the Universe kisses your lips with every word of Torah or prayer that you utter [yes, the Baal Shem Tov actually put it that way, based on Solomon’s Song of Songs 1:2, and more], then you will say each word just as it should be said, with love and with awe. And when you truly believe that with each mitzvah you are in embrace with the Infinite Light Himself, then your entire day will be filled with beautiful deeds that shine.”

“As for misplaced humility,” the Baal Shem Tov would conclude, “on that, the Talmud tells us, ‘The humility of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkilus destroyed the Holy Temple and exiled us from our land.’23

But wait, if you’re the center of the world, how about me? I’m also unique and special, right? We can’t both be the center, can we?

Well, maybe we can. Maybe human beings are not counted in an arithmetical way, where one plus one equals two, until the accumulated eight billion of us renders each individual a virtual nobody, vanished in the crowd. Maybe human beings are counted differently.

So here’s the Chabad take on counting humans, on our equality, on our magnificent diversity and on the immeasurable preciousness of each and every one of us. So that each human being is the entire world.

Introducing the Etzem

Humans are the fundamental unit of humankind. When dealing with fundamental units, Wall Street has dollars, physicists have atoms, Gottfried Leibniz had the monad, and Chabad talks about the etzem.4

The etzem can be found anywhere, in anything; it is a oneness, whole and complete, lying at the essence of each thing. What’s especially neat about the etzem, is, as the Baal Shem Tov was fond of saying, “When you hold a part of the etzem, you hold all of it.”5

Think of shares in a corporation. When you hold one share, it doesn’t mean you own one square foot in the corporate washroom. Each share is a share in the entire company, every part of it.6 So, too, wherever the etzem turns up in a detail, there you have one share of the entire etzem.

Take mitzvahs.7 Mitzvahs are the fundamental unit of purpose. All the mitzvahs of the Torah represent a single etzem: G‑d’s purpose for your world. Each individual mitzvah holds a share of that etzem. That’s why, if you’re occupied with one mitzvah, you’re off the hook for every other mitzvah.

For example, you’re attending to someone who is not well. That’s a mitzvah. Let’s say another mitzvah pops up, such as celebrating a friend’s wedding, praying with the congregation in the synagogue, eating in a Sukkah on Sukkot, or calling your Mom. So you ask your local halachic authority what to do, and you get a clear answer: Stick to the mitzvah you are doing right now.8 (Calling mom might be an exception, since no one can replace you for that.)

Why? Because, at their etzem, all the mitzvahs are the same one act—doing that which G‑d wants of you. And so, in doing this one mitzvah, you are doing all the mitzvahs of the Torah.9

An etzem, then, is something like the life within a living organism.10 What’s the difference between a living squirrel and the roadkill someone accidentally ran over in the mad rush to work this morning? Both have the same limbs and organs in the same structure and form. But the living squirrel is a single being, while the dead carcass is a collection of parts in a single encasement. The living animal is united by a single, shared etzem, which the carcass has lost.

Like you. You are a living organism. Whether I grab you by your hand, your earlobe or your toenail, I’ve grabbed all of you. Because within each part of you is the same etzem—the same you. Your toe is no less you than your earlobe.

Within every year, every day, every moment of time, there is an etzem.11 If I could know what this moment is all about, what’s it purpose, what I’m meant to do with it, I would have its etzem.

And that etzem contains all of time: Just as the reflection of the same sun appears in the ocean, in a pond, or a puddle, or a raindrop, so in the etzem of every year, every day, and every moment of time appears all of time, every second of it, all at once.

That’s because all of time is itself a single etzem. And like I said, you don’t get a piece of the etzem, you get a share of it. With every tick of the clock life deals out to you, you’ve got one share in all of time.

A hologram might be a good metaphor. A hologram presents a three-dimensional image because it’s made of many cells, each presenting the same image from a different angle. You can cut a hologram in two and now you’ll have two complete holograms of the same 3D object. Cut it again and you’ll have more.

Perhaps a better metaphor is a fractal. A fractal is an image of endless depth generated by a single mathematical formula. Each level of depth of the fractal is simply another articulation of the same formula.

Hiding On Purpose In Plain Sight

It’s important to note is that we are not talking about being a vital part of a whole—like a player on a team. Yes, if I steal one guy from your minyan, I’ve dissolved the entire minyan. So too, a winning team depends on the individuals who are part of it—the team can’t do its thing unless each one does his or her part.

That’s only true, however, as the individual is part of the whole—as a player on the team. But when I have any one player all by himself, I don’t have the whole team—I have only that one individual. In the share-of-the-etzem paradigm, each individual contains the entire whole independently. Each one is the whole—each in a different and unique way.12

Take the universe. The universe is also a single etzem, and all its details are shares of that etzem. If you could find the etzem of each entity in the universe, you would find that it contains the entire universe.

What is the etzem of each entity? It’s purpose for which it was created—that which we often call the divine spark within.13 Each entity of the universe expresses the purpose of the entire universe in a different way.

It’s just that within a single entity, that purpose cannot be seen so clearly. Sometimes it can seem as though there is no purpose, just haphazard “stuff that happens.” When we see the bigger picture—the accumulation of all this “stuff happening”—then the purpose becomes clearer.

Which is yet another thing about the etzem: It is always there, and nothing can hide it—because it is the essence of each thing. What the etzem can do, however, is to camouflage itself, sort of hiding in plain sight, by expressing itself as a detail, rather than as a whole. What are those details? All the details that render a singular universe a plethora of endless beings.14

The Individual Is the Whole

The ultimate, only true etzem is G‑d Himself. G‑d is the perfect oneness, both encompassing all existence and not dependent on any existence. And, indeed, the truth of every other etzem you will find in this universe is nothing other than G‑d Himself.

Yet the fullest, most exquisite representation of that etzem in our world is the individual human being. Within each of us lies the fundamental unit of freedom within the universe—the freedom to go blindly our own way and make ourselves each one his or her own god, or to fulfill the purpose for which we were created and bring harmony and perfection to our world.

That’s what the creation story in Genesis means when it says that the human being was created in “the image of G‑d.” The individual human being, with his or freedom to make or break his universe, is the ultimate fractal of G‑d.15

Take a look again in that creation narrative of Genesis and you’ll notice how the emergence of all living things is described as creation en masse—fields of grasses, forests of trees, schools of fish, herds and families of beasts. Only the human being is created as an individual.

“Why was the human being created as an individual?” ask the rabbis of the Talmud. “To teach you that one who destroys a single human life is as though he has destroyed an entire world. And one who saves a single human life is as though he has saved an entire world.”16

That’s not just a figurative hyperbole. The Talmud provides a vivid, practical application of this principle:17

A caravan of people is traveling on the road is accosted by strangers who tell them, “Give us one of you and we will kill him, and if you refuse, we will kill all of you.”

Even if all of them will be killed, they cannot hand over a single soul.18

The ruling is stunning. And yet, within it lies the fundamental rejection of totalitarian fascism and communism that has become an essential building-block of post-WWII modernity.19 The individual is sacred. Nothing, not the good of the state, not even the lives of the majority, can override the sanctity of the individual.

It also reflects the intuitive experience of the human being. The human being, as he or she becomes aware of his or her own existence, experiences something bewildering, even shocking. There are billions of “theys,” “yous,” “hes” and “shes” out there, but only one “I.”

How could that be? Only because the individual human being experiences life as an exquisite fractal of the very etzem of G‑d—the true “I”.

The Divinity of Diversity

Now you’re going to ask, “If all individual human beings share an equal spark of divinity and represent the same one G‑d in His universe, why are they not all the same? If there’s one G‑d, shouldn’t there be one human being?”

And that’s an observation the Talmud notes in a terse, deep metaphor, “A human being stamps many coins with one stamp and they all come out the same. The Holy One, may He be blessed, stamps out every human being with the one mold of Adam, and no two are alike.”20

You see, the question is much like the question philosophers have asked for millenia, “How is it that from one comes many; that from a G‑d who is a perfect unity comes a universe of diversity?”

And our rabbis answer that this question is not really a question. Because, quite the contrary, the most exquisite expression of a G‑d who transcends form is a universe of diverse and opposite forms.

Only from One who is neither water nor fire can come both the oceans and the stars; from One who is neither large nor small can come both the blue whale and the gnat; from One who is neither light nor darkness can come both the eyes of the hawk and the ears of the bat, the glistening fierceness in a leopard’s eye, the tender care of a mighty eagle for her eaglets, silence and noise, destruction and renewal, order and chaos—and all in the same instant, even within the very same being.

As the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, once spoke:

The One Above did not want His creation to be a sort of simple oneness, homogeneous and uniform, with no distinction between one creation and the next. On the contrary, He desired a multitude—a tremendous multitude, to the point that we exclaim, “How many are Your works, oh G‑d!”21

And not in number alone. They are diverse, and their diversity has great meaning. On any one of those creations we can exclaim, “How great are Your works, oh G‑d!”22 Because these differences are not insignificant, arbitrary differences. Rather, the uniqueness of each individual creation is a commentary all of its own on the greatness of its Creator.

So too, it is the differences among human beings, not their similiarities, that makes them precious in their Creator’s eyes.23

The Wondrous Paradox of Being Human

Yes, it all seems such an impossible paradox—to say that we are both perfectly one and entirely different in the same breath. But that, too, is a reflection of the Creator, for whom it is impossible that anything should be impossible, for He transcends all binaries. Paradox of this sort is beauty, for it is a window within our world through which transcendence shines.

Perhaps that is why we human beings eventually came to embrace these primal yet contrasting values of diversity and equality—not so much from our sense of reason, but from the etzem within each of us that encapsulates and expresses the magnificence of the divine.

And that may be what truly motivates us to preserve the diversity of our world, and of one another, for in that diversity is expressed the most profound secret of the divine and of the human soul.

Paradoxically again, by describing the preciousness of every human being in such an individualistic way, we actually tie human beings closer together. Intimately together.

When describing the connection of one Jewish person with another (which is a paradigm for the connection all of humanity must learn to feel), Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes in his classic work known as the Tanya that all our souls, aside from being one etzem at their origin, are “twinned.”24

Meaning: Not only do they all represent the same one G‑d, but they are entangled with one another in that representation—much as particles of the same atom are entangled in their states—even if they’re blown off to opposite ends of the galaxy. Because not only are they all one etzem at their essential core, but in their differences as well.

And therefore, what happens with one human being, even in some detail that would seem entirely irrelevant to another human being on the other side of the planet, affects that other person immediately and profoundly.

So each human being must look at another human being and say, “That is not an other. That is my same essence expressed in a different unique and special form. What happens with her happens with me. Her pain is my pain. Her happiness is my happiness. Her destiny is my destiny.”

It becomes patently clear now why we cannot strip one human being of his or her dignity as a human being for the sake of the rest of humanity, and why a world that does so is not a sustainable world. Because it is an impossibility. Each individual is the entire world. We are all reflections of a single face from every possible angle. If you’ve stripped one individual of human dignity, you’ve stripped all of us.

Practically Speaking…

In his recent book, Social Vision—the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s transformative paradigm for the world, Dr. Phillip Wexler discusses how the great sociologist, Max Weber, had difficulty seeing the “inner-world mystic” creating a viable society. Yet, Wexler writes, the Rebbe extended the very “inner” and very “mystic” school of Chabad thought towards an activist program of social transformation and a better future for America and the world.

Here’s a very practical example of how the Chabad concept of etzem addresses one of the big social dilemmas of our time: the incarceration of criminals.

As Wexler shows, the Rebbe spoke with great passion of the need to replace punishment with repair. “Corrective facilities,” he said, must live up to their name.

In the Rebbe’s words:

We must see to it that the individual should feel that he is—as G‑d said—“in our form and like our image”25 Meaning, that he is a human being. That, if only he so desires, he can be a person in the likeness of the One Above.

…But when we take away that possibility, when we persecute and oppress him, when we don’t allow him to raise his head, then not only is the “correctional facility” not conducive to its own purpose—on the contrary, it actually makes him even more predisposed to criminality than he was before his initial incarceration.

That is why it must be a goal of the correctional facility to raise the spirits of those who find themselves there. In all possible ways they should be treated just like free people— just like the prison guards. They must be given the opportunity to achieve their human potential to the most complete degree.26

The guy’s a criminal. He stole. He damaged. Maybe he even killed. But he’s a human being, and therefore in the divine image, a fractal of G‑d. And therefore, our job as a society is to teach him how to live as the noble being he truly is.

Each of us is the world, a divine being. That’s why, if you truly respect yourself, you will enter the space of every other human being with awe and humility.