We’re All Responsible for Each Other
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Shavuot, Korach is the Parsha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. For Parshat Shelach (this week in the Diaspora) please click here.
We’re all familiar with the Talmudic aphorism (TB Shavuos 39a), “כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה” – All Israel are responsible for each other. This ‘Arevut, or acceptance of responsibility for each other’s behavior, is embedded within several verses of the Torah.
An example of just how far this communal responsibility goes can be found in the story of ‘Achan (Joshua ch. 7). When destroying the city of Jericho, Joshua declared that all the contents of the city were to be dedicated to Hashem, and that no one was permitted to take any of the spoils for themselves. Scripture (7:1) relates that “The children of Israel violated the ban on the spoils,” but in reality, only one man, ‘Achan, secretly took some of the spoils for himself. As a result, Hashem punished the entire nation.
The next battle the army fought suffered 36 casualties as a result. When asked why this happened, Hashem responded to Joshua, “Israel has sinned, and violated my covenant” by taking the spoils.
This idea of communal responsibility seems deeply ingrained within our people. That is why it is so strange to encounter a passage where the leaders of Israel imply the opposite. After Korach gathered a group of 250 men with censor pans to rebel against the leadership, Hashem told Moshe and Aharon that they should separate from the people so that He might destroy them (16:21). Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces, and beseeched Hashem to change his mind, saying (16:22):
אֵל אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כָּל־הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף
Lord! The G-d who knows the thoughts of all flesh. Shall one man sin and You become wrathful against the whole congregation!?
How do we make sense of this challenge? After all, Hashem was only proposing that which was already made known, that in Judaism, we are responsible for each other! If Korach and his men were sinning, then the rest of the community should have to bear some level of responsibility. Why were they arguing to the contrary?
What’s even more astonishing is a Midrash which discusses this idea of ‘Arevut. The Midrash quotes our verse, “Shall one man sin,” etc., but instead of reading it as a rhetorical question, the Midrash reads it as a statement of fact: “When one man sins, You, Hashem, become wrathful against the whole congregation.”
It then offers a parable to demonstrate the point: A group of people are all sitting in a boat. One man pulls out a drill and starts drilling a hole beneath him. His friends say, “What are you doing?!” He responds, “What do you care? I’m just drilling beneath my own seat!” They justifiably respond that by drilling a hole underneath his seat, he will sink the entire boat. How can the Midrash take a verse which argues against communal responsibility and use it to support that very value?!
I asked my two teenaged sons if they could help me answer the question. I posed the following to them: Let’s say one of your classmates in yeshiva commits some kind of infraction. Under what circumstances would you feel it fair for the entire yeshiva to be punished for that action, and under what circumstances would you feel that the sole perpetrator should be singled out for retribution? They answered that it depended on the type of crime committed. If the young man did something that was so out of character from the rest of the yeshiva, the yeshiva had done nothing to contribute to this person’s behavior, and the person’s behavior is not representative of the yeshiva, then it was not fair to punish the rest of the yeshiva. If, for example, the boy was caught in a night club in Tel Aviv, sans kippah, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, this would not be a case of ruining the yeshiva’s reputation and the young man should be expelled and the rest of the yeshiva left alone.
But if the young man’s behavior is in some way reflective of a certain character flaw that may exist within others in the yeshiva, and if this person’s action is a stain on the entire yeshiva, it would be fair for everyone in the yeshiva to bear responsibility.
Let’s say, for example, the young man went to Ben Yehuda St. with his yeshiva garb and then started smoking, drinking, and fraternizing with girls. This flagrant and open behavior indicates that there’s something amiss within the yeshiva culture, and the whole yeshiva would have to be disciplined, not just the young man in question.
One Bad Apple
Their response was helpful to me, in that it suggests that sometimes collective punishment is fair, and sometimes it’s not. In the case of ‘Achan, we’d surmise that he was doing something that was on the mind of a lot of people. His action did not occur in a vacuum, and it also reflected badly on the rest of the nation. This is why collective punishment was justified in that situation. Moshe and Aharon were arguing to the G-d who is described in the verse as “אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר” – the G-d who knows man’s innermost thoughts. You, Hashem, know that the Jewish people in general were never thinking about an insurrection against us. Korach is a sole bad apple who has incited others through his rhetoric and charm. His crime is not reflective of the true character of the people, and they therefore do not deserve to be punished.
It would seem to me that there’s one more distinction to be made in our story. In other cases where collective punishment is doled out against the people, the leaders weren’t warned in advance about G-d’s plan. However, in this case, Hashem notified Moshe and Aharon that He was about to destroy the entire congregation. This was a subtle cue to Moshe and Aharon that they were meant to intercede on behalf of the people (the same can be said of other episodes where Hashem tells Moshe that He’s about to destroy the people, as in the sin of the Golden Calf and the sin of the Spies).
This seems to indicate that during this incipient stage of learning about what it means to be a Jew, Hashem was patient with the Jewish people and was willing to extend to them an allowance of making mistakes that could be atoned by the proper corrective actions. Hashem was implying to Moshe: In reality, the entire congregation deserves to be punished. But this is still a foreign concept to this first generation of Jews. Let them know what they deserve, so that in the future if one of them sins, they should know that they will all have to bear responsibility.
In this sense, Moshe and Aharon’s words were both a rhetorical question AND a statement of fact. For this first, innocent generation of early Jews, it was meant rhetorically. They weren’t yet versed in the ways of G-d and communal responsibility, and so it wasn’t fair to collectively punish them. But it was a statement of fact for future generations, who would be more aware of the Torah’s teachings, as well as feel a natural sense of kinship with the rest of their countrymen. This explains how the Midrash could turn Moshe and Aharon’s rhetorical question, “Shall one man sin and You become wrathful against the whole congregation!?” into an affirmative statement.
One might with to consider the issue of communal responsibility in light of every shul’s individual culture. If a small group of people speak in shul during tefillah, then it depends on what the synagogue’s culture is to determine whether this is a communal problem or that of individuals. If the behavior is considered normal for that congregation, then there may be something amiss in the entire congregation. If it’s an aberration of the kehillah’s decorum, that’s an entirely different story. It’s really up to all of us, members of our respective kehillot, to make things right. Let’s be mindful of how we can maintain the holiness and decorum of our Mikdash Me’at.
May we continue our holy journey together as a community, until we return to the Holy Land and Redemption, bb”a.