Years ago, when I was in school, there was no uniform policy. Any long-sleeved, white blouse with any navy mid-length skirt could be worn. We expressed our individuality through the particular style blouse or skirt that we chose.

In schools that do enforce uniforms, students will often distinguish themselves by colorful hair accessories or bold jewelry.

In his book on prison life, Erving Goffman writes that when people are incarcerated, they make their clothing look different—by stretching out their sock, for example—so that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s.

We all need some way to express our individuality. And yet, when given our autonomy, don’t we want to have what “everyone’s wearing”? Ironically, we sometimes express our individuality by copying “everyone else.”

Seemingly, we have two opposing forces tugging at us: our need to stand out as individuals vs. our need for belonging.

In fact, too much individuality can often lead to a lack of identity.

Psychology professor Martin Seligman bemoans this aspect of modern society. “In the past quarter-century, events occurred that so weakened our commitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life … . Where can one now turn for identity, for purpose and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed, and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: the self.”

In our pursuit of individuality, have we forgotten the goal of community?

In this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, the tribes camped in the wilderness, “each man by his division with the flag of their fathers’ house.”

Rashi explains: “Every division shall have its own flag staff, with a colored flag hanging on it; the color of one being different from the color of any other.”

Each tribe had its own leader, its own place to camp, its own color and flag, and its own representative stone on the breastplate worn by the High Priest. Each tribe was allotted its portion in Israel that best suited its vocation, as shepherds, vintners, seafaring merchants, scholars, etc.

Bamidbar is always read around the holiday of Shavuot, when the Jewish people received the Torah as “one man, with one heart.” Their communal unity did not stop them from having distinct tribal identities.

And perhaps here is the crux of successfully integrating individuality with community.

We all need to feel a sense of belonging to something greater—a people, a community, a way of life. Only when we feel a secure sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves can we really have the freedom to discover our individuality.

But this larger entity must also provide the framework for each of us to strive to become our unique personal best.