The Personal Element in Serving God

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




Each individual is a world unto himself. God created no two people identical. The Gemara in Berakhot (58a) states:


Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of Israelites, he says, "Blessed is He who discerns secrets," for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.


            In a similar vein, Rashi comments at the beginning of Parashat Shemot (1:1):


"Now these are the names of the children of Israel" - Although Scripture has already enumerated them by name while they were living, it again enumerates them in death, thus showing how dear they were [to God] - that they are compared to the stars, which [God also] brings out and brings in by number and name, as it is said: "He brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name" (Yeshayahu 40:26).


We know that each individual star is a world unto itself, even though to our eyes they all look alike. In this respect, they are similar to the Jewish people, each individual member of which constitutes a world unto himself.


            Despite the uniqueness and distinction of each and every individual, all Jews are bound by the same mitzvot. Even though, practically speaking, everyone fulfills the mitzvot in an identical fashion, they differ one from the other with respect to the emotional charge that accompanies their fulfillment of the mitzvot, as well as with regard to the spiritual echo that resounds from their performance of the mitzvot. "I have seen an end of every purpose; but Your commandment is exceedingly broad" (Tehillim 119:96) - every mitzva is broad enough to allow each individual to find his corner, his world, and a meaning to the mitzva that is relevant to him.


            Many explanations have been offered as to why the Torah repeats twelve times its detailed description of the offerings of the princes of the tribes of Israel. For our purposes, it is interesting to examine the explanation offered by Ramban (Bamidbar 7:2):


There is another explanation of this [chapter] in the interpretations of the Rabbis, namely, that each of the princes intended to bring a dedication-offering to the altar which would be of the amount [specified in the verses]. But Nachshon [prince of the tribe of Yehuda] had a particular reason for [bringing] this number [of offerings], and each of the other princes thought of an independent reason...


Ramban goes on at length to explain possible ways of understanding the significance of the different elements in the princely offerings. The principle that emerges from his explanation is that while in practice the twelve princely offerings were identical, each prince mentally impressed upon his offering his own unique and individual seal.


            Prayer is designated "service of the heart." Owing to the fact that the fundamental differences between people express themselves in their hearts, rather than in their facial features, it may be expected that the nature of prayer should vary from one individual to the next. An explicit discussion of this idea is found in the Zohar (Vayishlach, 167b):


The prayer of a congregation ascends to the Holy One, blessed be He, and He is crowned therewith, because it comprises many hues and directions, wherefore it is made into a crown to be placed on the head of the Righteous One, the Living One of the Worlds. The prayer of an individual, however, is not many-sided and presents only one hue; hence it is incomplete and not as acceptable as the prayer of a congregation.


The unique aspect of communal prayer is that it ascends before God in a variety of colors, which correspond to the variety of individuals who constitute the congregation.


            Regarding Torah study, it is stated: "With my whole heart I have sought You; O let me not wander from Your commandments" (Tehillim 119:10). The personal element is important even in Torah study; one can express the "understanding of his heart" even when he reaches a halakhic conclusion identical to that of others. Torah study is indeed based upon logic and reasoning, but nonetheless, it is not the same as mathematics, for example, where there can be only one possible conclusion.  Rather, Torah allows for different possible ways of understanding. Thus writes Ramban in the introduction to his Milchamot Hashem:


Anybody who studies our Talmud knows that, regarding the disagreements among the commentators, there are no absolute proofs, and generally there are no irrefutable objections. For this branch of wisdom does not allow for clear demonstrations as does mathematics. But we must direct all our might and vigor in every disagreement to remove one of the opinions with decisive arguments and declare the opposing view as fit, based on the plain sense of the laws and a fitting understanding of the passages, together with the agreement of sound reasoning. This is the most we can accomplish.


The unique nature of Torah study, which cannot reach absolute and provable conclusions, magnifies the value of each individual's subjective study of it.




In his commentary to Mishlei, the Vilna Gaon comments on the verse, "The Lord has made everything for His own purpose" (16:4):


Each and every individual has his own path to follow, for the minds of two people are not the same, just as their facial features and natures are not the same. When there were prophets, people would go to the prophets to seek out the Lord, and the prophet would advise the individual on the basis of prophecy about the path he should follow, according to the root of his soul and the nature of his body...

Even when prophecy ceased, the Holy Spirit remained in Israel. Each individual would be advised by his own spirit how to conduct himself, the Holy Spirit being found in each and every person. But "blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile" (Tehillim 32:2)...

If, God forbid, there is in his heart a small root that bears gall and wormwood, there will be guile in his spirit if he conducts himself according to his spirit; his ways will be clean and righteous in his own eyes, but he will fall from heaven to earth until he is unable to rise; he will stray from the ways and commandments of God, and not know himself. This is the meaning of the verse: "Commit your works to the Lord" (Mishlei 16:3).  In other words, now we are not to follow wonders and marvels, but only to see that our works are directed to the Lord... Because "the Lord has made everything for His own purpose" (ibid. verse 4), i.e., God's will finds primary expression in the Torah and the mitzvot.


            According to the Vilna Gaon, when there was prophecy in Israel, the prophet would show each individual his own special way of serving God. Even after prophecy ceased, the "ruach ha-kodesh" in each individual could still advise each person about his personal path. But not every individual is afforded that insight, and there are certain people who do not act according to the ruach ha-kodesh within them, but on the basis of personal interests and social considerations. Such people fool themselves into thinking that they are acting for the sake of Heaven. Today, therefore, a person must give up his aspiration to find his own personal way in the service of God, and follow the general path of Torah and mitzvot.


            Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, however, notes in many places the need to find one's personal path in the service of God, even today. In Orot ha-Kodesh (seder rishon, no. 19), Rabbi Kook relates to the price paid by one who fails to discover his own special way of worshiping God.


Each individual must know that he has been called upon to serve [God] according to his own unique understanding and feeling, based on the root of his soul, and that he will find the treasure of his life in this world, which embraces innumerable worlds. Let him not be confused by what flows into him from alien worlds, things that he cannot properly understand, that he is not able to assimilate into his life. These worlds will find their perfection in their own place, by those who are able to construct and improve them. He, however, must concentrate his life within his own worlds, within his internal worlds, which for him are filled with everything and encompass everything. A person must say that it is for me that the world was created.

This humble greatness affirms man and brings him to the heavenly perfection that awaits him. As he steps along this way of life, in his own special lane, in the path of the righteous that is unique to him, he will become filled with the might of life and spiritual joy. The light of God will reveal itself to him, from the letter in the Torah that is especially his, from which his light and strength will issue forth. 


            According to Rabbi Kook, every person is required to find his own unique path in serving God, and not to assimilate into his life ways of serving God that are not suited to him. If a particular method of study is inappropriate for a certain person, it is better that he should leave it to others. This approach combines greatness and humility; a person must recognize what is suited to him, and not adopt what is inappropriate for him. According to this approach, all competition disappears, for every person has a goal of his own, and he must act in accordance with that suits his personality, even if, from society's perspective, one particular path is better than the other. Rabbi Kook refuses to waive the responsibility of each individual to find his own special path, and even points out the loss caused to a person who fails to find his own way.


            Elsewhere (ibid., 19, p. 115), Rabbi Kook writes:


Someone with a lyrical and poetic soul must understand his nature, his special yearnings and desires, the ways of his soul, and the special spiritual food that is needed to satisfy his spiritual life like air for breathing. Even if he participates along with people of other talents in fulfilling other spiritual demands, he must never forget that he is called upon to stand on his own at his spiritual station. Upon all facts, discussions, teachings, investigations, argumentation, and thoughts he should sprinkle of his pure and strong spirit, which is replete with holy song alive and pure, a pure sprinkling of streams of light, poetic thoughts and nobility of soul that yearns always for its beloved Redeemer, the living God.


There are certain people whose emotional and lyrical sides are highly developed. Such people must find a way to give expression to their special qualities, this being true even if they live their lives among people whose personalities have developed in different directions. Whatever one chooses to do, his spiritual character will shine its special light and have its special impact in accordance with his unique personality.


According to Rabbi Kook, this perception also defines a person's approach to Torah study. Therefore, he warns of the dangers that a person faces when he studies Torah not in accordance with his personal nature (Orot ha-Torah, 9):


Every person must occupy himself in matters for which he has [the proper] preparation, this being especially true about [Torah] study... There are those who have fallen into bad ways, because in their approach to study and spiritual perfection they betrayed their unique personal characters. One person may be fit for aggadic matters, but it would be out of character for him to involve himself regularly in halakhic concerns. Since he is unable to appreciate his special aptitude, he immerses himself in halakhic matters, as is the prevalent custom, and he feels within himself opposition to the matters with which he is occupied, because his immersion in them does not accord with the nature of his personal talents.




As stated above, the Vilna Gaon already pointed out the dangers of such an approach, of each person seeking out his own unique way of serving God. One must be mindful of excessive individualism. First of all, such an approach leads to pride, when a person sets himself up in the center of things. Furthermore, the individual must also relate to the community, seeking out what is good for others, rather than sever himself from them. Aspirations for originality sometimes stem from pride, or from laziness and searching for the easy way out.


One of the foundations of serving God is shame. "It was taught in a baraita: 'And that His fear may be before your faces, that you sin not' (Shemot 20:17) - this refers to shame" (Nedarim 20a). Shame means taking other people into account. A person who has no shame effectively declares that he has no regard for the opinions of others.


Moreover, excessive individualism causes a person to lose interest in what is happening in society around him. In India, where so many young Israelis go in search of peace and spirituality, there is an enormous social gap and an absolute disregard for the performance of righteousness and justice. Someone who is seeking out his unique path must consider how he can best contribute to society in his own special way, and he must guard himself against the danger of extreme individualism.


It must, therefore, be emphasized: With all the importance of a person finding his own special path in life, this choice must come only after years of investing efforts in the service shared by all and within the context of the community. Beginning students sometimes give expression to their despair of studying Gemara, declaring that such study is not suited for their personalities. Chazal designated a time period of five years for reaching such a conclusion (Bamidbar Rabba 6:3):


A Levite does not enter the Temple courtyard to perform the service unless he has studied for five years, as it is said: "This is that which belongs to the Levites: from twenty five years old and upwards" (Bamidbar 8:24). And below it says: "From thirty years old and upward" (ibid. 4:3). If it says: "From twenty five years old" - why does it say: "From thirty years old"? And if it says: "From thirty years old" - why does it say: "From twenty-five years old"?

All those year between twenty-five and thirty he would study, and from then on, he would be brought in for the service. From here [the Sages] said: Whoever fails to see a sign of blessing in his study within five years will not see it later.


            It is inappropriate for a person to decide at the outset that the generally accepted way of learning is not suited for him.  He may reach this conclusion only after years of hard work alongside the rest of the community.


(Translated by David Strauss)