"I Dwell Among My People"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




When Elisha tried to repay the Shunamite woman for her kindness, she said to him: "I dwell among my people" (II Melakhim 4:13). Regarding these words, the Zohar says (Noach 69b):


Rabbi Elazar said: When the world is being called into account, it is not advisable that a man should have his name mentioned on high, for the mention of his name will be a reminder of his sins, and will cause him to be brought under scrutiny.

This we learn from the words of the Shunamite woman. It was Rosh Ha-shana, when God sits in judgment on the world, that Elisha asked her: "Would you be spoken for to the king?" (II Melakhim 4:13), i.e. to the Holy One, blessed be He, for on that day He is, in a special sense, King, Holy King, King of Judgment. She answered: "I dwell among my people" (ibid.), as much as to say, "I do not wish to be remembered and to have attention drawn to me, save among my own people." He who keeps himself in the middle of his own people does not draw attention upon himself, and so escapes criticism.


            The underlying message is that a person should try to avoid standing out from the community in which he lives. When a Jew stands before God, he recognizes his insignificance, and prefers not to be judged as an individual, but as part of the Jewish people. In his everyday affairs as well, a person should strive to be part of his community, and not allow himself to stand out more than necessary. Making oneself conspicuous testifies to arrogance, for a person who makes himself noticeable demonstrates that he views himself as fit to stand individually and on his own before God as well.


            The Chatam Sofer, in his novellae to the Talmud (Nedarim 40a), cites the view of the kabbalists who, adopting this attitude, arrived at a novel halakhic conclusion:


This may be explained based on what Chazal said (see Berakhot 34a) that when someone prays for the recovery of a sick person, he is not required to mention his name, as it is written: "Please, O God, please heal her" (Bamidbar 12:13). And the kabbalists wrote that mentioning [the sick person's] name arouses a measure of judgment against him. Even though he is likely to attain advantage through the prayer, mentioning [the sick person's] name sometimes involves a certain disadvantage.

This is not the case when he prays in the sick person's presence, so that he does not have to mention his name - then it is good for him. That is, someone who comes in to visit a sick person should pray for his recovery, because it is unnecessary to mention his name. But someone who is not visiting the sick person prays for him out of his presence, and so he is forced to mention his name in his prayers. This will sometimes cause him damage, even though he prays for his recovery.


According to the kabbalists, it is preferable to pray for a sick person in his presence, for then one can pray on the sick person's behalf without mentioning his name. Mentioning his name, which is necessary when one prays out of his presence, is liable to cause him injury, even in the context of a prayer for his recovery. This is based on the principle underlying the passage from the Zohar - the danger posed by standing out.


A famous Chassidic story tells of a chassid who used to share his business profits with his rebbe. One year, when he came to give the rebbe his portion, he did not find him, and he was told that the rebbe had gone to visit his own rebbe. The chassid said to himself: "If my rebbe has a rebbe, why should I give to my rebbe; from now on I will go to my rebbe's rebbe and share my profits with him." And so he did. But from that day on, his business ventures began to fail. The chassid asked his rebbe's rebbe to explain what happened. He responded: "As long as you gave freely, without examining carefully to whom you were giving, Heaven too gave you freely, without examining whether you were really deserving. But now that you have become particular about whom you give to, Heaven too became particular and saw that others are more deserving than you."


It is for this reason that Chazal stressed, in various contexts, the importance of being part of the community. Some of these contexts include prayer ("An individual should always associate with the community" - Berakhot 30a); fasting ("At a time when the community is immersed in distress, a person should not say: 'I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul'" - Ta'anit 11a); Torah study ("A person should always complete his [reading of] the Torah sections with the community, twice the Hebrew text, and once the Aramaic translation" - Berakhot 8a); and many other areas.


The same idea is found the Torah's description of how the children of Israel were to be counted (Shemot 30:12-15):


When you take the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you number them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary... The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give the offering of the Lord, to make atonement for your souls.


Why was there concern about a "plague" at the time of the count? Malbim explains:


Furthermore... as long as the people are united and they are all as one, the merit of the community is very great. But when they are counted, each person is set apart by himself and his deeds are scrutinized, and therefore they become subject to plague. In order to remedy this, [God] commanded that each person give half a shekel, which indicates their association [with the community]...


            A count causes each individual to stand out, and his personal conduct to be carefully scrutinized. This situation is liable to give rise to a plague. The remedy lies in everyone bringing half a shekel - an identical amount for each individual - thereby restoring unity among all the individuals included in the count.


            At first glance, the idea of not standing out is contradicted by what Rambam says in Hilkhot De'ot (beginning of chapter 5):


Just as a sage is recognized by his wisdom and moral principles that distinguish him from the rest of the people, so ought he to be distinct in all his activities: in his food and drink, in the fulfillment of his marital obligations, in attention to his excretory functions, in his talk, walk, dress, management of his affairs and business transactions. All these activities should bear the mark of exceeding refinement and orderliness...


Later in the chapter, Rambam describes at length the proper conduct befitting a sage in each of these areas. Does this not contradict the idea of "dwelling among one's people"?


Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that, to the contrary, the additional demands upon the sage stem precisely from his obligation to dwell among his people. Rambam is dealing with the elevated moral standards that a distinguished person should accept upon himself, which one cannot expect from others. These stringencies do not stem from a desire to stand out or from haughtiness, but rather from the desire to merit the esteem and love of the community. For example, the requirement that the Torah scholar be distinguished in the way he eats is meant "so as not to incur popular contempt" (halakha 2); the requirement that he be distinguished in his speech is defined as "speaking gently with all people... and being the first to greet everyone he meets, so that they will be well disposed towards him" (halakha 7); and the requirement that he dress distinctively does not mean that his clothing should make him stand out, but rather the exact opposite:


A scholar's dress will be becoming and clean. It is forbidden for him to allow a stain or grease or the like to be found on his garment. He should not put on robes befitting royalty, such as those embroidered with gold or purple, which attract universal attention; nor, on the other hand, shabby garments such as are worn by the poor, which bring contempt upon the wearer; rather, he should wear clothes that are in the middle [way] and are becoming. (halakha 9)




There are special cases where it may be beneficial for a person to demand more from himself, even in ways that will make him stand out from the rest of his community - but such conduct demands great caution. A person must refrain from belittling others who do not act as he does, and must beware of displaying arrogance. As Ramchal says in a passage cited previously[1] (Mesillat Yesharim, chap. 20):


Indeed, a person is obligated to keep all the commandments, with every minute detail, without fear or shame... But there are supererogatory deeds of piety which, if one performs them before the common masses, will cause them to laugh at him and ridicule him... It is certainly more correct for a pious person to forsake such practices rather than perform them. This is what the Prophet meant when he said: "And walk humbly with your God" (Mikha 6:8).  Many men of great piety abandoned their pious practices when they were among the common masses so as not to appear boastful... You may derive from this that one who aspires to true piety must weigh all of his actions in relation to the consequences that follow from them and the circumstances that accompany them, considering the time, social environment, occasion, and place.


            Some authorities limit the stringencies that a person may accept upon himself to practices that the entire community can possibly adopt. For example, Ramban understood the Torah's command, "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2), as a general command to abstain even from things that are permitted. Yet Chazal (Torat Kohanim, dibura di-Kedoshim, 1) said about parashat Kedoshim: "This teaches that the section was proclaimed in full assembly of the nation. Why was it proclaimed in full assembly? Because most of the essential parts of the Torah depend on it." Rabbi Yehonatan Eibeschuetz, in his commentary to the Torah (Tiferet Yehonatan, ad loc.), argues that there is a connection between the nature of the commandment to abstain even from things that are permitted, and the fact that the section was said in full assembly:


For the words and dealings of the perfect servant of God must be pleasing to Heaven and to other people. He must do nothing to disturb the ways of civilized society and management of the polity... Therefore, any type of abstinence that a person accepts upon himself should be of the type that could possibly be observed by the entire people without being nullified. But abstinence of the sort that is possible only for an individual and not for the nation in its entirety does not fall into the category of perfection and abstinence. The Sages of Israel discouraged such practices. This is the meaning of the Midrash: "This section was proclaimed in full assembly." This is as we said: the abstention from things that are permitted must be from things that pertain to the [entire] assembly.[2]




The value of "dwelling among one's people" is important on the educational level as well. Some argue that such an approach is liable to impede a person's spiritual advancement and strangle his loftiest ambitions. In the yeshiva world in Lithuania, there was a clear demarcation between yeshiva students and ordinary Jews ("ba'alei batim," or balabotim). The term "ba'al bayit" (balabos) became a term of derision, a symbol of superficiality and shallowness. The prevailing educational approach was to distance oneself from the rest of society, even in external matters, such as dress and the like, and to expect every yeshiva to develop into a great Torah authority. Separate synagogues were even established for the yeshiva students.


Encouraging achievement and excellence is, indeed, likely to lead to significant accomplishments. On the other hand, there is room for concern that excessive goading and unrealistic parental expectations from their children can engender frustration and tension. A person who grew up in such an atmosphere can never really be happy with his lot, and he will always see the half of the glass that is empty.


Personally speaking, I believe in the approach that advocates "dwelling among one's people." This approach seems preferable educationally, and likelier to yield positive results. Is it not preferable for a person to attain more modest achievements but enjoy emotional health, rather than achieve greatness that is accompanied by feelings of frustration?


When Chana prayed for a son, she asked: "But you will give to your maidservant a male child (lit., 'seed of men')" (I Shmuel 1:11). Chazal commented (Berakhot 31b): "'Seed of men' - seed that will be merged among men... Neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too corpulent, neither too pale nor too red, neither over-clever nor stupid." Did Chana not want her son to achieve greatness? Apparently, Chana recognized the value of education that does not encourage standing out and separateness. On the contrary, it is possible that Shmuel grew into a great leader precisely because his mother raised him in such an atmosphere.


            It is precisely the absence of distinction that is likely to lead to great results. A talented person will usually grow even without the pressure and expectations that lead to arrogance and seclusion. In contrast, education that stresses excellence and elitism is liable to cause great frustration.


            This issue may also effect the question of contributing to society. It may be assumed that a person who grew up in less achievement-oriented society will contribute more to others. As Ramchal writes (Mesillat Yesharim, chap. 22):


Moreover, the company of the humble is very pleasant, and his fellow men find delight in him. He is, perforce, not given to anger or strife; he does everything calmly and peacefully.  Happy is he who attains this trait. Our Sages of blessed memory already said: "What wisdom places as a crown on its head, humility treats as the heel of its shoe" (Yerushalmi, Shabbat 1:3). For all of wisdom cannot compare with [humility].




Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes in his Orot ha-Kodesh (pt. II, ma'amar 2, no. 28):


The intelligentsia thinks that it can separate itself from the common masses; then it will be healthier in spirit, nobler in thought. This is a fundamental mistake, a mistake that does not recognize the healthy side of natural cognition, natural emotions, and natural sensations that were not improved, but also not spoiled by cultural influences.

Healthy integrity is more common among primitive people than among the educated and those whose morality is based on reflection. The educated are clearer on the particulars of morality, its laws and intricacies, but the basic sense of morality is found among the naturally healthy people, the common masses.

It is not only with regard to the basic sense of morality that the common masses rise above the select. Also the sense of faith, Divine greatness, beauty ... is healthier and purer among the common masses.

The mass [of people], however, is unable by itself to preserve its strength and purity, it cannot nicely tie together its ideas, it also does not know how to stand up in war, when contradictory ideas and feelings battle within its soul or against the outside world. For this, it needs the help of those great in resourcefulness, who straighten before it the paths of the world.

But just as [the noble in spirit] bestow upon [the masses] counsel and resourcefulness, so [the masses] endow them with health. The common denominator between the noble in spirit and the masses is the force that maintains the two sides in their appropriate places, and protects them from moral and material decay and degeneration.


            Culture may be constructive, but it can also have a destructive effect. There is strength in the healthy thinking of ordinary people, which should be combined with the moral ideas of the great men of spirit. Simple faith is likely to survive longer than complex faith. Rabbi Ya'avetz he-Chasid, one of the Spanish exiles, describes this phenomenon in his book, Or ha-Chayim (chap. 5):


The Spanish women came and brought their husbands to die a martyr's death for the sanctification of God's name, whereas the people who would boast about their wisdom exchanged their glory [i.e. converted to Christianity] on the bitter day. This is a great and powerful proof that had they not acquired wisdom, but remained in the class of simpletons, their simplicity would have saved them, for the Lord preserves the simple. But since they did not content themselves to believe on the basis of tradition, but followed after rational inquiry... they entered the class of apostates who have no remedy.[3]


            We find a similar phenomenon in the agricultural realm. In the process of grafting, a shoot or bud of one plant is inserted into the trunk or stem of another, the two joining together to form one new plant. One of the main reasons for grafting is the desire to join a more domesticated variety together with a wild variety, on the assumption that the wild variety is stronger, whereas the domesticated variety, though higher in quality, is more susceptible to disease. The grafting process helps the domesticated element better endure.


            This, then, is an additional advantage of "dwelling among one's people" - the connection made to the strong and stable natural roots that characterize simple and ordinary people.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See above, Chapter 11.

[2] See also Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, Responsa Ha-elef Lekha Shlomo, (Orach Chayim, no. 112): "And that which he asked about my personal practice, he knows that I do not practice any stringency more than the simplest Jew. O that my part in the World to Come should be with the simple Jews, who walk uprightly."

[3] See Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 35:30, who cites the words of Rabbi Ya'avetz, and discusses the issue at length.