Time Magazine created quite a stir when its May 20, 2013, cover story slammed millennials as “the Me Me Me Generation.” Critics quickly pointed to equal or greater egocentrism from Gen X and Baby Boomers, however, and historically minded observers went back further. The entire enterprise of modernity rests on glorifying the individual. Hence, Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to inalienable human rights; also, modern economics built on Adam Smith’s assumption of rational individuals pursuing their own interests as solitary economic agents. In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau announced the absolute sovereignty of individual free will; in 1855, Walt Whitman wrote a poem to “celebrate myself.”
The obvious danger is individualism developing with indifference to society, on one hand, and tradition, on the other. How do we balance the individual self with the need to maintain a social fabric and to give due deference to a past which (as Mordecai Kaplan put it), should at least get a vote, if not a veto?
Traditional Jewish texts frame the matter differently. It is not just the individual and society that require consideration, for there is a third term to the human equation: God. Too much stress on the individual promotes rampant egoism; too much emphasis on society produces fascist collectivities that run roughshod over individuals for the putative national good. Positing God as the final arbiter over individual and society proclaims a third and higher value.
Not for nothing, then, do the Ten Commandments begin with the blanket claim, “I am the Eternal your God.” The Rabbis don’t call them “Ten Commandments,” actually; they prefer aseret hadibrot, “the 10 things” that should guide us. And the first of these “things,” they insist, is the recognition of God as the eternal “I” who instructs both individuals and society.
God’s appearance as an “I” is all-important, for it makes God an individual like ourselves, an “I” whom each of us can emulate, because, like God, we too are aware of being “selves.” The last four books of Torah provide laws for all of Israel, for the social order, that is; but the first book, Genesis, is a set of biographies, an ambling preamble about a collection of human “I”s struggling to grow in league with God.
Yet the human “I” can indeed get out of control. Torah agrees, as we see from a fascinating interpretation of the recollection, this week, that back at Sinai, the Israelites were too frightened to hear God directly and required Moses to intercede. “I [!] stood between you and God back then,” Moses says. But the word “stood” appears in the present tense, leading hasidic voices to say, “It is the ‘I’ — our own ‘I’” — that regularly stands between ourselves and God.
We have diverse selves, it turns out: an egoistic “I” that stands between us and God; but also a sacred “I” that strives to emulate the “I” whom we call God — the “I” that cares for justice, exercises compassion, and takes people out of slavery.
That we, like God, can say “I” is the miracle of miracles.