G‑d’s Blessing

There is a well-known statement by the Alter Rebbe,1 quoting the Maggid of Mezeritch, who quoted the Baal Shem Tov, explaining why we do not recite the blessing for the new month on the Shabbos preceding Rosh HaShanah:

The seventh month, which is “the first of the months of the year,”2 is blessed by G‑d Himself on the Shabbos of blessing, the last Shabbos of Elul. With the power [imparted by this blessing], the Jews bless the 11 [coming] months.3

It is written:4 atem nitzavim hayom, “You are standing today.” Hayom, “today,” refers to Rosh HaShanah,5 the day of judgment, as it is written:6 “And it came to pass (hayom) on that day,” which the Targum renders: “the day of awesome judgment.” [And on that day,] “You are standing,”7 triumphant in the judgment.

On the Shabbos before Rosh HaShanah, which is the last Shabbos of Elul,8 we read the portion Atem Nitzavim. This includes the blessing of the Holy One, blessed be He, on the Shabbos on which the seventh month is blessed. It is a month which is satiated — and which satiates all of Israel — with manifold goodness for the entire [coming] year.

The commentaries9 explain that the verse: “You are standing today... to enter into a covenant,” introduces the concept of mutual responsibility; that each Jew serves as a guarantor for every other, as it is said:10 “All Israel are responsible one for another.”

Several questions arise:

a) What is the connection between the latter interpretation and the one offered by the Baal Shem Tov?11

b) We find12 that although the covenant of mutual responsibility was established by Moshe our teacher, it did not take effect until the Jewish people actually entered Eretz Yisrael. Why didn’t the concept of mutual responsibility take effect as soon as the covenant was established?

Who Can Serve as a Guarantor?

The above questions can be resolved by clarifying the concept of mutual responsibility. Logically, one would only accept as a guarantor a person who was greater (with regard to the matter at hand) than the person entering the covenant. For example, when a poor man applies for a loan, one accepts a rich man as a guarantor. One would not accept a poor man as a guarantor for a rich one.

This is not the case with regard to the mutual responsibility of the Jewish people. Every Jew, even the lowest, is responsible for all the rest. Moreover, this is expressed in Torah law with regard to the blessings recited before the performance of a mitzvah. Although he has already fulfilled a mitzvah himself, every Jew — even one on a very low level — can recite a blessing for another Jew — even one on the highest level, because “All Israel are responsible one for another.”13

When the Foot Becomes a Head

The Alter Rebbe interprets14 the above verse to mean that the Jewish people are a single entity. This leads to a further concept. In the human body, every limb complements every other. For example, the feet possess a certain quality which the head does not, and in this way, the feet complement the head. Similarly with regard to the ten levels within the Jewish people mentioned in this passage: “the hewers of wood” and “the drawers of water” possess a certain advantage over “your heads,” and complement the latter.

This helps us understand why “All Israel are responsible one for another.” For every single Jew possesses a particular advantage over every other, and can therefore serve as a guarantor for him.

Levels of Oneness

In the above maamar, the Alter Rebbe cites the verse:15 “When the leaders of the people assembled the tribes of Israel,” and explains that “the people come together to be united as one.” In this vein, he refers to the analogy of the human body mentioned above, that every limb complements each other, and that all need each other. And he concludes: “The entire Jewish people are a single complete entity.”

The wording of the Alter Rebbe is very precise. Thus although the phrase “come together to be united as one” may appear to contain a redundancy, each phrase contributes something. After stating that every limb complements every other, and that all are interdependent, the Alter Rebbe concludes: “The entire Jewish people are a single complete entity.”

To explain: there are three levels in the unity of the Jewish people: “come together, “united, and “as one.” “Come together” is stated in the verse cited previously. The Alter Rebbe adds that the Jews’ togetherness is based on unity, and he explains the nature of this unity by stating that every individual complements every other, and that we all need each other. He then adds that there is a deeper level; the Jews are “as one.” He then amplifies this thought with the statement: “The entire Jewish people are a single complete entity.”

To clarify: “Together” reflects the purposeful joining of distinct entities that do not share any inherent connection. For this reason, the Alter Rebbe uses the terms “united” and “as one” to indicate that the bond between the Jewish people is deeper than that. The Jews are a group of distinct people who come together “to fulfill Your will with a complete heart.”16 But they also share a deeper connection; they are “united as one.”

“United” implies togetherness reinforced by an internal connection. When different entities come together for a shared purpose, their individuality is preserved. When they are “united,” the individual potential each possesses is joined to the others. Each one adds a quality which the others lack.

“As one” points to an even deeper bond. When entities are “united,” they are still referred to in the plural. “As one” refers to a singular entity. This is reflected in the analogy of the human body, which though comprised of many limbs and organs is a single organism. Not only do the limbs complement each other, they merge to create a single entity.17

It’s Not Bad To Stick Out

The above, however, prompts a question: Since the bond implied by the term “as one” indicates a deeper connection than mere unity, why does the Alter Rebbe mention unity at all? And why does he elaborate upon it, employing the example of the head and feet?

This indicates that being united possesses an advantage over being simply “one.”

Consider: As mentioned, a person’s limbs and organs are part of one body. But that body is able to function as it should only when each of its limbs is working properly. If the function of even one of the limbs is impaired, the entire body is imperfect.18 This indicates that the individual nature of every limb is important.

Yes, there is an advantage to being “at one” over being “united,” for the fundamental nature of every limb and organ is the fact that it forms part of a complete organism. But this essential quality is not reflected in the external functioning of each organ, for in its function, each organ expresses its individual nature. This is the advantage of being “united” — that even though each limb (i.e. each individual Jew) exists as a distinct entity, all the limbs (i.e. all the Jews) are unified and complement each other.19

The Alter Rebbe’s explanation of “unity” is more detailed because our Divine service is directed towards realizing that goal.20 Accordingly, every Jew, as he functions within his own identity as a soul enclothed within a body, must be “of a humble spirit in the presence of every person.”21 For every other person possesses qualities that can complement his own.

From the Inside Out

The two levels implied by the words “united” and “at one,” are dependent on each other. The external unity that connects our people as individuals enhances the inner bond, which unites us “as one.” Were the individual elements to be entirely discrete entities, it would be impossible for them to share an inner bond.

Bittul, the external selflessness that allows for sharing with and receiving from each other, expresses the fact that ultimately every person is more than himself; he is a member of the Jewish people at large.

Since the inner nature of the entire Jewish people is “at one,” our external dimensions are unified and complementary.18 Were each person’s inner dimensions to be merely personal — for his personal qualities are, after all, what is most important to him — he would not require the support and influence of others. Nevertheless, because the inner dimension of the Jewish people is one, their external dimensions reflect that inner oneness and are therefore complementary.

Entering Eretz Yisrael

On this basis, we can understand why the Jews’ covenant of mutual responsibility only took effect with our entry into Eretz Yisrael. The word areivim, which means “mutually responsible” also means “mixed together.” The identities of the entire Jewish people are intermingled, for our people is “united, as one.”

Such unity is possible only by virtue of a transcendent light,22 and our people were not exposed to that transcendent light until they entered Eretz Yisrael. For it is only in Eretz Yisrael that we will fulfill G‑d’s ultimate intent in creation, and make the world a dwelling for Him.23 And therefore it was not until our entry into Eretz Yisrael that the covenant of mutual responsibility took effect.24

In Unity There is Strength

On this basis, we can understand the connection between the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation of Atem Nitzavim — that the Jews stand victorious in the judgment of Rosh HaShanah — with the statement that this verse refers to the covenant of mutual responsibility.

By “standing... together,” “united as one,” without thought as to who is on a higher plane and who is on a lower one, we subsume our personal identities amidst the Jewish people as a whole. This will surely cause us to emerge victorious in judgment, for the Jewish nation as a whole is surely good. And this will cause us to be inscribed for a good and sweet year in the year to come.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Nitzavim-Vayeilech, 5718, 5719)