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All of Israel are Responsible for One Another – how so? – Part II

Elul 5782 | September 2022

Part II

Our previous blog addressed the concept of mutual responsibility, which emerges from various sources in the Torah that introduce collective brachot and kelalot – blessings and curses – for keeping the covenant of the Torah. This mutual responsibility puts the onus on every individual to maintain the covenant, to ensure that the entire nation is blessed.

This blog will focus on the complexity of the concept itself, since the Torah seems to interchange personal and collective responsibility.

Regarding the idolater, the Torah says (Deut. 29):

17 It may be that there is among you a man or woman or a family or tribe whose heart is already turning away from the Lord our God to serve the gods of those nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. 18 All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, ‘We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways’ (thus sweeping away the moist with the dry) 19 the Lord will be unwilling to pardon them, for then the Lord’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven. 20 The Lord will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law. 21 The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the Lord has afflicted it— 22 all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord destroyed in his fierce anger— 23 they and indeed all the nations will wonder, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?’ 24 They will conclude, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt…’

On the one hand, the verses state that God will single out the offender; but on the other, the will be devastated and afflicted ‘because they abandoned the covenant,’ despite the initial blame lying with one person or family.

Similarly, the Torah states with regard to one who sacrifices to Molech (Lev. 20):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Say further to the Israelites: Any of the Israelites or of the aliens who reside in Israel who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone them to death. I myself will set my face against that person and will cut them off from the people, because they have given of their offspring to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name. And if the people of the land should ever close their eyes to them, when they give of their offspring to Molech, and do not put them to death, I myself will set my face against them and against their family and will cut them off from among their people, them and all who follow them in prostituting themselves to Molech. If any turn to mediums or spiritualists, prostituting themselves to them, I will set my face against that person, and I will cut them off from his people.

The Torah emphasizes the responsibility of the individual, “I myself will set my face against that person and will cut them off from the people, I myself will set my face against them and against their family.” On the other hand, the general framework relates to punishment that affect the entire nation. How, then, does this system work? When is responsibility personal, and when is it collective?

The Gemara (Shvuot 39b) provides two directions for a response: the first differentiates between different types of inappropriate behavior. Some behaviors warrant a personal ramification, while others carry a collective punishment. This principle is based on the words of the prophet Hosea, who viewed a deceitful oath as a particularly severe immoral act, with broad impact (Hosea 4:1-3):

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel, for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing and lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.

Some Rishonim extend the collective responsibility to other behaviors mentioned in the same verse (e.g. Ramban, Ran, and Nimukei Yosef ibid.).

A second direction relates to these behaviors in terms of responsibility. Contrary to a ship, which will surely sink whether or not we know that one person drilled a hold in its bottom (such is the case of the deceitful oath, which is unknown to others) – with regard to some behaviors the onus might be on society taking a stand and protesting. In other words, these is a difference between ramifications in the physical world, as opposed to the spiritual world. This leads us to the concept of tochecha – the mitzvah to admonish one who goes against the laws of the Torah.

The concept of tochecha is explicated in the Torah (Lev. 19:17): “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” According to this verse, anyone who refrains from reproof incurs the guilt of the offender’s action on himself. Indeed, according to the Gemara (Shabbat 54b-55a), the extent of responsibility depends on the amount of influence a person has on his surroundings. Many people want to be influential; it is important to remember that influence comes with a degree of responsibility.

This connects with another context of mutual responsibility. In the ship parable, the mutual responsibility relates to the shared fate of the people. But this concept might also be based on the legal perception of a guarantor. For example, when a person takes upon himself to pay a friend’s debt, he becomes a guarantor for his friend, and is responsible to help him pay off his debt. Just like a legal guarantee has limitation and restrictions about when liabilities apply – so too with regard to mutual responsibility, there are limits to the extent of one’s influence.

Mutual responsibility is framed in another way by Rashi in his explanation of Chazal’s principle. According to Chazal, one who is obligated in a mitzvah can exempt others who have a similar obligation; in fact, even once exempt of one’s own obligation, one can perform the mitzvah for another. Rashi explains that this possibility stems from the principle of mutual responsibility – which is expressed not only in avoiding negative behavior for the good of the other, but also in engaging in positive behavior to benefit others. Chazal and Rishonim view this reciprocity primarily in issues pertaining to recitation – when one person’s action may exempt another from obligation (i.e. in the case of brakhot or blowing the shofar). Achronim also address a moral obligation to enable others to eat in one’s Sukkah, or give up one’s Arba Minim to allow a neighboring city to perform the mitzvah. In other words, the value of mutual obligation justifies compromising the most elevated performance of a mitzvah to enable more people to engage in mitzvot (Resp. Maharam Shik, Orah Haim 322; Sha’ar ha-tziyyun on Mishnah Berurah 655:5, and Arukh ha-shulhan ibid.).

In conclusion, the Torah directs us toward the important value of mutual responsibility and unified participation in the covenant with God, promoting the idea that the privilege of living in Israel and meriting the divine presence are dependent on a mutual effort. At the same time, the Torah provides clear parameters for coping with the Torah’s high moral demands – pointing to certain behaviors that have a broader range of influence, and demanding more responsibility from those who have greater influence, as well as applying the mitzvah of tochecha when constructive. The Torah also defines situations in which one may help another be exempt of a mitzvah, and encourages us to use our belongings to enable others to perform mitzvot, to whatever extent possible.


Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.