The Jewish Journey From Singular To Plural


“I am giving before you, this day, a blessing and a curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26).

So opens Re’eh, referring to the covenant at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eybal that dramatically concludes the Book of Deuteronomy, preceding our entry into the Land of Israel.

There is a curious grammatical formulation that, when properly understood, will shed light not only upon the nature of this third and final Torah covenant but also upon a fundamental philosophy of our religious nationality.

The Hebrew verse begins with a singular verb addressing an individual, re’eh (see), but then continues with a plural pronoun, lifnehem (giving before you), addressing a multitude. This switch from singular to plural is especially worthy of note: When we find such Biblical changes they take place in the opposite direction, from plural to singular. In the preface to the Ten Commandments, for example, God addresses in plural the multitude of Israelites [Exodus 18:4]: “You have seen (re’etem) what I have done to Egypt, and I lifted you (et’hem) upon eagles’ wings,” but then switches to the singular in the Ten Commandments itself [Ex. 20:1]: “I am the Lord your God (Elohekha, singular) whom I took (hotzeitikha, singular) from the land of Egypt. … You shall not murder (lo tirzah, singular).”

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 7:31 p.m.
Torah: Deut.11:26-16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Havdalah: 8:30 p.m.

Ramban (regarding Genesis 18:3) explains the switch from plural to singular, here and cataloguing other instances when such a transition appears, as God’s desire to make certain that His words are being heard not only as a command to the masses but also as a personal injunction to each and every individual.

In effect, God is thereby appearing as a chassidic rebbe rather than as a congregational rabbi, in accordance with the light-hearted understanding of the two. When a congregational rabbi speaks, every individual believes that he is addressing the person next to him; when a chassidic rebbe speaks, every person listening knows and feels that the rebbe is addressing him personally.

Nevertheless, if this is the case, how can we understand our opening verse, in which God begins with the singular and continues with the plural? Perhaps this grammatical phenomenon speaks to the very definition of this third covenant, known as the Covenant of Arevut, or mutual responsibility [BT Sotah 33b]. The Israelites, divided into two groups of six tribes, stand ready to receive God’s blessings on Mt. Gerizim and God’s curses on Mt. Eyval, poised before Shechem, ready to enter the Promised Land. Re’eh tells the exact location: “beyond the Jordan… in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Aravah, over against Gilgal, beside the oak tree of Moreh” [Deut. 11:30]. The term “aravah,” or plains, is taken by the Talmud as a play on words, the Hebrew arev also meaning “the co-signer,” the individual who takes financial responsibility if a borrower reneges on a debt.

This is the covenant that insists that every Israelite see oneself as part of a whole, as a member of a nation, a united organism whose separate individuals feel inextricably and indelibly bound to each other in fate, destiny and responsibility. Hence, God begins with the singular and continues into the plural in order to impress upon the individual Israelite that he/she must in some way merge with the multitude and assume responsibility for the entire Jewish people, that “every Israelite is a co-signer, responsible for every other Israelite.”

This is what I believe to be the higher meaning of a “shomer Torah u-mitzvot,” literally a guardian over the Torah and tradition. It is not sufficient to merely study Torah and to perform the commandments. Just as a guardian takes responsibility for the objects in his possession, so must each of us — in his or her own way — take responsibility for the dissemination of Torah and the establishment of proper Torah institutions in his/her community, in his or her generation.

It is recorded that the famed Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin (1887-1933) was forced into a dispute with a Christian cardinal concerning the quality of our Jewish tradition. “The Talmud is blatantly anti-Christian,” argued the cardinal. “Does it not state that ‘only Israelites are called adam [Hebrew for human beings] whereas gentiles are not called adam,’ and therefore we gentiles are not considered by you to be human beings?!” Rav Shapiro explained that there are four synonyms for human being in the Hebrew language: gever, ish, enosh and adam. The first three of these nouns have both a singular and a plural: gevarim, ishim, aneshim; only adam has only one form, both singular and plural.” Humanity, a compound noun, includes every one together as a single organism.

If a Jew is suffering in any country, or if Israel seems to be in danger, Jews worldwide demonstrate and flock to their homeland. This is a unique Jewish quality, built into our third covenant. In the case of the Jewish nation, the singular merges into the plural, the individual Jew is an inextricable part of his people. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.