There is a rule called the Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 rule. This principle was developed by 20th century business scholar Joseph Juran, who named the rule after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. The 80-20 rule states that 80% of outcomes can be attributed to 20% of all causes for a given event. In business, it means that 80% of a company’s revenue is generated by 20% of its total customers. For a business trying to maximize its profits, the rule is used to help managers identify the critical 20% that matters, in order to allocate resources to maximize gains. When applied to a community, this rule would dictate that leaders focus on the wishes and whims of the top 20% of their community, spending very little time addressing the needs of the bottom 80%.
Perhaps, though, the Torah has a different perspective. On January 3rd, 1958, Rav Soloveitchik delivered a shiur when he posed the following scenario and question: It’s Erev Yom Kippur and the Kohen Gadol is walking in a field outside the city, when he sees a corpse. Should he bury the corpse himself and become tamei, rendering him unable to perform the once in a year Yom Kippur service in the Beit Hamikdash to achieve forgiveness for the people? As luck would have it, the backup Kohen this year is tamei as well. As such, if the Kohen Gadol buries this corpse, the entire nation will go without a Yom Kippur service this year. There will be no sa’ir la’Azazel and no crimson thread turning white in the Beit Hamikdash. The entire nation will be unable to partake in what is the spiritual climax of their year. And who is the type of person that would likely be found dead in the middle of a field outside a city? Not a king or an officer, but likely a hobo, a vagabond, a prostitute, a leper, or an outcast, who either died along the way or who was murdered. Rav Soloveitchik asked, under these extenuating circumstances, should the Kohen Gadol run back to the city and find someone else to bury this corpse so that he will not become tamei? Allowing the corpse to linger longer alone in the field would allow the Yom Kippur service in the Beit Hamikdash to go on as planned, achieving forgiveness for the people. Do we prioritize the atonement ceremony for the entire nation, or do we tell the Kohen Gadol to become tamei in order to preserve the dignity of a leper?
The answer, of course, is that the Kohen Gadol must bury this individual. The dignity of one person, no matter whom it is, alive or dead, is more important than this purification ritual for the entire nation.
When our communities gather during this month of Elul, we think about our plans for the coming year and pray for success. We strive for increased Talmud Torah in our communities, hope for inspiration so that our tefilot may be more meaningful. We are energized as we plan for programming that excites and inspires our youth, and social activities that help create greater warmth in our community. But this year, if we want to truly strive for greatness as the Torah prescribes, we must make sure we have all of our members in mind as we craft these lofty goals. Because the Torah is clear about where our priorities should lie. Our community will achieve greatness this Elul when we focus on energies on not only the top 20%, or even the top 50% or even the top 80%, but when we truly invest in the underprivileged and the disenfranchised in our communities. Doing so may not reap rewards in the conventional ways we are used to counting them. It may not be the route to maximal funds or peak productivity. But committing as individuals and as a community to meeting our moral and ethical commitments to one another is an investment that will raise our entire community to a whole new level.
And so I pose this question to my own community this Elul season: What if we all committed to have an extra spot on our Shabbat table reserved for those who need a place, not necessarily because they need food, but because they need the dignity of an invitation? What if we committed to inviting one neighbor who needs that feeling of belonging, but is too embarrassed to ask? What if we all committed to look around in shul every week for someone who may not be in the in-crowd and needs some attention, or is perhaps a visitor who is feeling alone? Maybe, if we all have this attitude, we can achieve a spiritual atonement more powerful than even the Yom Kippur ritual itself…