Nitzavim Vayelech: Standing Up – for each other and for our common humanity.

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In Nitzavim Moses warns that “The secret things belong to the Eternal our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.”  (Deuteronomy 29:28). It sounds perfectly reasonable as a sentence until one starts to look a little closer – what are the secret or hidden things being referred to here? What are the revealed? And why the need to state the distinction? It is an obscure verse and open to much conjecture.

Rashi understands this verse as one where Moses reassures the people who are standing and accepting the covenant for all time and all Jews – even those not yet born. They must be afraid that they will be held responsible for things about which they knew nothing, as part of some Jewish collective responsibility – indeed we are told in Talmud (Shevuot 39a) that” Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh – all Israel are responsible, one for the other.” So in Rashi’s eyes Moses is explaining that any sins that were openly committed and that we might have been able to prevent or mitigate – these we remain responsible for. But actions done in secret, about which we can have no knowledge – these are left for God to deal with; and he goes on to explain that God will indeed punish sins that are not publicly known about, if they are not acknowledged or mitigated.

One of the great themes of the end of the book of Deuteronomy is ‘arvut’ – the mutual responsibility between Jews. As the leadership of Moses is coming to an end, he clearly foresees a splintering of the group, maybe the challenge of a number of different leadership candidates, and he does his best to prevent this by stressing the communal nature of our relationships with each other. So here we are reminded: we are part of a single people bound by a single covenant. We cannot afford to ignore what each other is doing, or to challenge what we see to be against the values of our tradition, or to excuse something as fringe or marginal or not impacting upon us.

There is a something else that adds to the oddity and opacity of this verse – in the scroll the words ‘for us and our children’ with dots over each letter. The reason for this scribal notification is not known, but it drags our attention to the verse asking for us to pay even more intense attention to it.

We read in the Talmud: Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Nehemiah said to him: Is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

The Talmud seems to imply that the collective responsibility only comes into being once the Jews had arrived in the land, that the peoplehood only becomes absolute at the point they have a land. This idea has evolved as the Jewish people fulfilled the Abrahamic promise by being dispersed all over the world, and as the land became metaphor more than reality for so much of Jewish history to grow into a sense of collective arvut – of responsibility for more than our Jewish community but for the different communities of which we are part, and certainly our identities have become more complex and overlain with different relationships. We grow into our communities when we have shared purpose, shared values, shared space. But the dots over the phrase “for us and our children” direct us to look deeper and closer, and again Rashi comes to our aid. Rashi, (commenting on Psalm 87:6) suggests that “the hidden things are not sins, but people” – that while many Jews have left Judaism either through historical circumstance or through assimilation, and their children may never even know of their Jewish history and backgrounds, Rashi understands that their Jewish roots are never forgotten by God.

Now this may make some people uncomfortable. In Nitzavim we were entered into a covenant without either assent or consent – by our descending from Jewish parentage we are part of this covenant whether we like it or not. Jewishness is something that is given to us whether we wanted it or not. Similarly, the understanding of a verse around this covenant is that we can never escape it – even if we no longer are aware of being part of the Jewish people, by virtue of heritage all who descend from that time will find themselves brought back into it. One thing that it does do however is to bring into focus that we cannot really know anyone’s yichus, and that we should trust God’s judgement over our own. It also means that we cannot be narrow in our understanding of who is in our community, with whom we share responsibility – the obligation to care for others extends beyond the confines of family or known community, out to the whole human world – the arvut is rightly broadened out to include all the groups among whom we live.

This verse about the hidden and the revealed reminds us that we cannot know everything about the world. It reminds us that we have responsibility for what we do or should know about – and it also reminds us that one of the things we know is that we cannot know for sure where the boundaries of our community lie, only that they extend into the human race.

Danny Siegel wrote a wonderful poem which speaks to us in the same way, a poem I love to read and use to remind myself of the extensiveness of arvut:

“If you always assume/ that the person sitting next to you/ is the messiah/ just waiting for some simple human kindness/ You will soon come to weigh your words/ and watch your hands/ and attend to your responsibilities./ And/ if he so chooses/ not to reveal himself in your time/ It will not matter. (Danny Siegel, ‘A Rebbe’s Proverb (from the Yiddish)’)

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Korach and Collective Responsibility

“And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, “God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?”   (Numbers 16:21)

The issue of Collective Punishment remains with us as a modern problem and it is no surprise that rabbinic tradition builds arguments to try to dissect and clarify the issues. Call up the question on a search engine and the chances are you will find emotive responses citing the biblical verses of the children paying for the sins of the father – for example Deut. 5:9 “You shall not bow down to nor worship other gods; for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..”. or maybe citing the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – though of course a closer look at such texts shows that they do not in fact suggest collective punishment, and one can equally find biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” Or Jeremiah 31:29-31 “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes–his own teeth will be set on edge” or Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is in fact a story AGAINST collective punishment – indeed Moses bargains God down from destroying them and destroying the righteous with the wicked, and only when it becomes clear that there are no righteous people at all, beyond Lot and his family (who are warned to leave before the destruction) is the fate of these cities sealed.

 There is no driver towards collective punishment in Judaism – rather the reverse is true in our texts as God is challenged on a number of occasions when it looks like divine punishment will include the innocent alongside the perpetrators – including the verse in our portion. There is no impetus  towards collective punishment but some rabbis – including Maimonides, make the case for collective responsibility, something that becomes enshrined in Jewish Law in the phrase “Col Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh” (B.Talmud Shevuot 39a) – All Jews are accountable each for the other. In other words, we have a responsibility to each other, and an obligation to make sure that we all behave properly in the world. If not, then we are guilty of passively colluding with behaviour that is immoral, that we leave unchallenged behaviour we know to be wrong. This is, in many ways, the origin of the periodic “Not in my name” protests to Government – we do not want to be passive, nor to have people believe that we accede to what is done by our elected leaders.

The Code of Hammurabi (c1700 BCE) was the first to bring in to a legal framework the requirement that the punishment should fit the crime, and the bible takes much of that moral world view – including the famous phrase of lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – treated as meaning there should be proportionate punishment rather than a collective retribution. The Talmud puts it rather more fully in tractate Shabbat 54b “Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his household; if he can prevent the people of his city, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his city; if the whole world, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of the whole world.”

 The rabbis who taught this are saying that we have a responsibility to each other, and that this responsibility is on a number of levels of propinquity and possibility. Failing to prevent a wrongdoing is not on the same level as actually committing the act oneself. Not stopping someone with whom we have a relationship is not the same as not stopping someone who is unknown to us and at a distance from us. The word “seized” which I have translated as “responsible” does not imply being something to be tried in a court of law, but is more about having a moral relationship to the action, something between ourselves and God rather than between ourselves and humankind.

 We share a Collective Responsibility – among family bonds or amongst the Jewish people, among fellow citizens under shared government, or as human beings who have stewardship of the world.  Jewish teaching is clear that we are not isolated from each other: To use the words of John Donne “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all:….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 The text of this parashah rings clearly as a bell for us: “And they fell on their faces and said, God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?” 16:21. Collective punishment is not acceptable in any circumstance, but collective responsibility is something for us all to take note of, and to do.

 

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

 

Korach: Collective Responsibility

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

“And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, “God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?”   (Numbers 16:21)

The issue of Collective Punishment remains with us as a modern problem and it is no surprise that rabbinic tradition builds arguments to try to dissect and clarify the issues. Call up the question on a search engine and the chances are you will find emotive responses citing the biblical verses of the children paying for the sins of the father – for example Deut. 5:9 “You shall not bow down to nor worship other gods; for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..”. or maybe citing the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – though of course a closer look at such texts shows that they do not in fact suggest collective punishment, and one can equally find biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” Or Jeremiah 31:29-31 “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes–his own teeth will be set on edge” or Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is in fact a story AGAINST collective punishment – indeed Moses bargains God down from destroying them and destroying the righteous with the wicked, and only when it becomes clear that there are no righteous people at all, beyond Lot and his family (who are warned to leave before the destruction) is the fate of these cities sealed.

 There is no driver towards collective punishment in Judaism – rather the reverse is true in our texts as God is challenged on a number of occasions when it looks like divine punishment will include the innocent alongside the perpetrators – including the verse in our portion. There is no impetus  towards collective punishment but some rabbis – including Maimonides, make the case for collective responsibility, something that becomes enshrined in Jewish Law in the phrase “Col Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh” (B.Talmud Shevuot 39a) – All Jews are accountable each for the other. In other words, we have a responsibility to each other, and an obligation to make sure that we all behave properly in the world. If not, then we are guilty of passively colluding with behaviour that is immoral, that we leave unchallenged behaviour we know to be wrong. This is, in many ways, the origin of the periodic “Not in my name” protests to Government – we do not want to be passive, nor to have people believe that we accede to what is done by our elected leaders.

The Code of Hammurabi (c1700 BCE) was the first to bring in to a legal framework the requirement that the punishment should fit the crime, and the bible takes much of that moral world view – including the famous phrase of lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – treated as meaning there should be proportionate punishment rather than a collective retribution. The Talmud puts it rather more fully in tractate Shabbat 54b “Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his household; if he can prevent the people of his city, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his city; if the whole world, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of the whole world.”

 The rabbis who taught this are saying that we have a responsibility to each other, and that this responsibility is on a number of levels of propinquity and possibility. Failing to prevent a wrongdoing is not on the same level as actually committing the act oneself. Not stopping someone with whom we have a relationship is not the same as not stopping someone who is unknown to us and at a distance from us. The word “seized” which I have translated as “responsible” does not imply being something to be tried in a court of law, but is more about having a moral relationship to the action, something between ourselves and God rather than between ourselves and humankind.

 We share a Collective Responsibility – among family bonds or amongst the Jewish people, among fellow citizens under shared government, or as human beings who have stewardship of the world.  Jewish teaching is clear that we are not isolated from each other: To use the words of John Donne “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all:….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 The text of this parashah rings clearly as a bell for us: “And they fell on their faces and said, God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?” 16:21. Collective punishment is not acceptable in any circumstance, but collective responsibility is something for us all to take note of, and to do.