I used to think that being unique was really important. When I was younger, and even now, I hated conformity. If everyone would stand up to get in a line for lunch, I’d sit down and wait. If blue was the color, I’d wear orange. Even after my teenage years, when buying clothes or music, I always looked for something that felt, well, unique. That’s because I hated the idea that I had to conform to a standard. I needed to be something else; I needed to be unique.
Except you’re not unique. You’re something else instead.
Biologically, science tells us that we all have individualized fingerprints and tooth marks, and both our retinas and our DNA pattern are particular to our bodies. That should make us unique, right? If we were so unique, how can doctors heal more than one person? How can there be a commonality of medical science that can give general care instructions for a broken arm or a headache? Let’s not confuse the fact that no two physiologies are the same with the idea that we are totally unique.
Because you’re not unique. You’re something else instead.
Marketers try to tell you today that you are unique with one-of-a-kind items or limited edition releases. They want you to think that you can express yourself through customization and having everything tailored just to your unique needs. But how many top fades has your barber cut this past week? How many oat milk vanilla lattes has your barista poured just today? How many fancy watches or necklaces or sunglasses have been sold that fit you ‘perfectly.’ How many “bespoke” suits were made with that fabric? How many times has your favorite artist been listened to on Spotify today? Often the things we want that we think solely are our own, never turn out that way. It’s certainly not when we buy our music, or what we eat that makes us unique. Don’t confuse your preferences with your uniqueness.
Often the things we populate our life with we think are what makes us unique, but in truth we’re happy to know what we like. That’s because there’s no reason to stand out, unless there are others to witness and see our new watch or hair color. So on the deepest level, trying to be unique is actually trying to fit in and when expressing ourselves it’s actually a vocation, a call, looking for others to do the same.
That’s because you’re not unique, but feeling disconnected.
As we turn to this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, we begin the fourth book of the Torah where this dynamic plays out chapter after chapter. The Book of Numbers begins in the shadow of Mt. Sinai and takes the Israelites across the desert to the edge of the promised land. Numbers is replete with a cycle of disconnection/reconnection. It begins with a census, gathering everyone together in the camp (Num. 1:2) and continues with laws of restitution, the sotah and the nazir – all laws playing on the dynamic of disconnection and reconnection. (Num. Ch. 5) Further in the book the Israelites complain about the food, wanting to go back to Egypt. Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses. Korach rebels against Moses’ authority. The scouts want to abandon the project of settlement. God even threatens to walk away from the people until Moses’s pleas save the day. (Num. 14:12). Over and over again, pockets of the Israelite camp try to assert their uniqueness only to find that God – or the people – just won’t let them.
The cycle of Numbers teaches us that every time we try to assert ourselves as loners, the covenant just won’t let that happen. Because being unique is not the point, being loved is. What makes us special, truly special, are the connections and the promises we make in life to each other and to ourselves. The more we connect, the more we love, the more we are loved. In the wilderness of life it’s not our uniqueness that makes us special, but finding the people who just won’t let us go.