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

Elul 5782 | September 2022

Part I

The book of Devarim is structured as a covenant. The book includes an introduction and preface for the covenant, a framework for the covenant (“See, I am setting before you today…”), and the ceremony of the oath ceremony in Parashat Ki Tavo. The main part of the book includes the conditions for the covenant: keeping the mitzvot of the Torah. The blessings (‘brachot’) and curses (‘klalot‘) in the oath ceremony are the result of keeping (or disregarding) the details of the covenant. The covenant also include some unusual features – such as incentives intertwined into the details of the agreement and the description of mitzvot (“so that God may bless you…”), and more. After the framework of the covenant is clarified, there is a description of the covenantal ceremony, and sanctions in the event of its violation.

Parashat Nitzavim explicates that the commitment to the covenant precedes entry into the Promised Land. Perhaps this is a necessary preparation for entering a covenant: What are its implications? What are the ramifications of its violation? What happens when one person in the nation decides to violate the covenant? Later in Parashat Nitzavim, and in Parashat Vayelekh, Moshe will address what happens when the covenant has been broken, but the nation wishes to return to God and the covenant.

The powerful opening statements of Parashat Nitzavim addresses the entire nation (Deut. 29):

You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Lord your God—the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water— to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today, in order that he may establish you today as his people and that he may be your God, as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Later, the verses describe the curse that will befall the land if one person or family engage in idolatry.

Chazal learn from the verses describing the covenant in Nitzavim (among others) about the concept of solidarity and mutual responsibility: “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” As explained in Midrash Tanhuma on Nitzavim 5:

Another interpretation: All of you are responsible for each other. Even if there is only one righteous person among you, you will all stand in his merit; and not only you, but also the entire world, as it is written (Prov. 10:25): “The righteous is the foundation for the world.” However, when one sins, the entire generation is stricken, and so you find in the case of Achan.

Otzar Hamidrashim (Eisenstein ed., Yelamdenu p. 225, and parallels) compares the idea of responsibility to people on a ship: if one person drills a hole under his own room, he sinks the ship for everyone.

The concept of “responsible for one another” seems simple and obvious when read in the verses. Obviously we stand, as a nation, before God. Along the way, the community has a collective responsibility for the individual – as demonstrated in laws such as egla arufa or the laws of prohibited sexual relations, the inadvertent or intentional killer; in all these cases and others, the land will expel the entire nation for the sins of the individual.

At one of our Shabbat meals, we discussed the concept of mutual responsibility. Our daughter had started an educational program with a mix of people that was new to her – men and women, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs. It was very clear to her that a religious world is a personal matter that involves free choice and one’s own relationship with God. While in matters pertaining to society she agreed that there was a need to convince and sometimes justify intervention from ‘above’ (i.e. the government). But on religious matters – perhaps due to lesser conviction, or delayed ramifications, or lack of absolute proof in matters of faith – it is harder to feel we can compel or even educate others about the importance of keeping mitzvot. In the discussion, the comparison to covid came up: the coronavirus was not visible; some defined it as a matter of faith. The ramifications were not always immediate, but it was clear (at least to some) that we were all in the same boat: the actions of one person can have a dramatic effect on everyone, and that mutual responsibility is crucial. We believe that even something that is not visible can affect the world, and that one who chooses to ignore the rules of the game can cause far-reaching damage.

What can one do? Some took excess caution upon themselves; others tried persuasion and influence; some offered assistance in access to vaccinations and testing; others argued over social media, or just complained vocally; yet others supported and reinforced the use of government sanctions. Not everyone has the power or capacity to influence others, and many just focused on doing what is right themselves.

A dominant characteristic of mutual responsibility is that the weariness of one side makes the commitment to reciprocity more difficult for everyone. It isn’t easy to follow rules in a society that is dismissive of those rules; I know people who recovered from corona and were therefore exempt from wearing a mask, but continued to wear one in order to reinforce mask-wearing in society.

The same is true of the religious world: if we believed that religious decay in society may cause the land to expel us and God to punish us as a society – we should try to do what is possible to keep our society intact. Not everyone has impact on others: but our first mission should be to follow the rules in our own lives – since our actions also have an effect on society as a whole. This idea is apparent in the oath ceremony: as the Ramban explains (Deut. 27:20), our responsibility is to ‘establish the words of the Torah’ – to ensure that its commandments are maintained. The more we deepen our understanding of the mutual responsibility in the religious and spiritual world, the better we will strive to leave our comfort zone and influence our surroundings to do the same.

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.