By Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa
“Humans [of New York] reaffirms a belief that stands out in a world of shiny celebrity: normal people matter. Stanton’s portraits are love letters to the ordinary. These love letters get shared a lot. Stanton has 17 million Facebook followers who have over time built a sense of community with each other. Each picture offers them something of real value, a daily demonstration of our common humanity.”
Stanton’s apparently novel concept, which has struck a cord among so many millions of people, is, in fact, rooted in a Torah idea that goes right back to the beginning of time.
Rosh HaShana is the anniversary of the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) makes the point that when G-d created the animal and plant kingdoms, he did so en masse, and yet with human beings he created all of humanity from one man and one woman — from whom every human being on earth is descended. He did so, the Talmud explains, in order to teach us the eternal lesson that to save one life is to save an entire world, and to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world.
Every human being is an entire world, filled with unique hopes and aspirations, concerns and disappointments, joys and pains — and we are called on to treasure and respect the preciousness of every human being. As our sages teach in Pirkei Avot, “Beloved is the human being created in G-d’s image” (3:18). Likewise, the Midrash (Tanchuma Pinchas 10) points out that just as no two faces are the same, no two souls are alike, either.
The impact and resonance of Humans of New York comes from this acknowledgement and appreciation for the uniqueness and preciousness of every human being. And from this mutual appreciation and recognition emerges the idea of community: a group of unique individuals, who, through their specific contributions, and mutual support, and shared vision, create a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Torah tells us that to be a Jew is to live not just as an individual, but to live as part of Klal Yisrael, “the community of Israel”. Klal Yisrael is more than just an amalgam of individuals; it is a living, breathing entity in its own right, a unified whole, in which each is responsible for the other. Through community, we enlarge ourselves, and in enlarging ourselves, we enlarge others.
In this spirit, as we strive to nurture a sense of community here in Cape Town, and across the broader South African Jewish community, we have the Torah to guide us. So many of the mitzvot are devoted to teaching us how to relate to one another: how not to speak negatively about each other (lashon hara), and address one another gently and respectfully; how to grieve and celebrate together; how to conduct ourselves ethically in business; how to reach out with kindness and compassion, and give generously.
These are the ways we build community. These are the ways we celebrate and support the Divine spirit within each one of us. These are the ways we connect with each other and with G-d Himself, who has created each of us and imbued us with a common Divine soul.
These are the ways we realise the perfected world G-d wanted us to create.
Shana tova to all!
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