Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?

Korach:the Brexit challenge of its day

Sometimes the concatenation of torah portion and world events is simply eerie.  In the UK we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid that spectacularly exploded outside of the narrow boundaries of party politic where it should have remained, and in bible we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid where the ambition of the leaders of the revolt harnessed popular opinion from those who felt marginalised and deserted by the ruling elite leading to a spectacular implosion of those ambitious challengers.

Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses and Aaron (his father Izhar and their father Amram were brothers) felt that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power, and that others in the community were equally competent to lead and were dissatisfied at being treated as being less than the ruling group. Along with Datan and Abiram and On ben Pelet and two hundred and fifty men of standing in the community he came to challenge the right of the leadership to continue.

רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָֹ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהוָֹֽה:

You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then do you raise up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (16:3)

Moses’ response was to fall on his face. He did not argue back, nor justify his leadership at this time, but seems to have been paralysed for a moment, and then he puts the onus for supporting his status on to God. A charitable reading would be that Moses was prostrated in prayer, to ask for divine guidance, but this is not recorded in the text, so what happens next seems to have come more from Moses’ mind than from God.

He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the Eternal will show who are God’s, and who is holy, and will cause them to come near to God; (16:5) and then told Korach and his followers to take their firepans the next day and put fire and incense in them, and God would show who would be chosen, who was holy. He challenges the Levites in Korach’s group – they already have a role and status in supporting the worship ritual, are they trying to take on the role of the Cohen, the priest, as well as that of Levite, the enablers of the priests?

Then follows a strange hole in the narrative – Moses says:

לָכֵ֗ן אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הַנֹּֽעָדִ֖ים עַל־יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י תַלִּ֖ונוּ [תַלִּ֖ינוּ] עָלָֽיו

Therefore you and all your company that are gathered together against the Eternal–; and as to Aaron, what is he that you murmur against him?’

What is the ‘therefore’ referring to? What causes the leap from accusing the rebels of challenging for the priesthood to accusing them as rebelling against God? Why does he appear to break off from this startling reframing of the rebellion and ask about Aaron specifically?  The rebellion is against both Moses and Aaron, but Moses seems to be taking himself out of the equation, viewing the – quite legitimate – complaints as being about the priesthood, and not about his own style of leadership.

Having categorised the rebellion as being about something rather different than what it really was about, he turns to the sons of Reuben, the descendants of the first born of Jacob, the tribe who might really have had a claim to leadership on the grounds of primogeniture and the inheritance hierarchy of the biblical world.

But Datan and Abiram are not cowed and they are not willing to come to him on his call, interestingly saying   לֹ֥א נַֽעֲלֶֽה we will not come up. Not that they will not come to him, but that they will not ascend/rise up. There are two very different understandings of this odd verb – one, that even while professing that they have an equal right to leadership their language betrays them – they see Moses as having a rightful higher status than them; or that while challenging Moses’ right to hold leadership, they refuse themselves to step up to the role, preferring to complain and challenge from the sidelines but without any intention of taking responsibility for the consequences of what they are doing.

Yet they are certainly prepared to complain and to paint a picture of failure and fault.

“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself also a prince over us?  Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.'(16:13-14)

Fabricated nostalgia paints a false picture of the past which is the set against the present situation. One might paraphrase it as “We came from milk and honey and we are not now given milk and honey, nor the other benefits you told us we would acquire on leaving Egypt and going to the Promised Land. And you are creating a climate of fear here where people who dissent fear for their health and wellbeing, so we will not do as you ask”  The Reubenite challengers are constructing an alternate reality in public view in order to bolster their position without in any way arguing their case or indeed using factually correct information. Egypt was most certainly NOT a land of milk and honey for the Israelites, the people are not yet arrived at the destination they are travelling towards and therefore the inheritance is not yet possible, and nowhere has the putting out of eyes of the men been mooted. But now this view is in the public domain, put forward by men of standing in the community, and there will be those who will believe it to be true, whose anxiety and disaffection can be harnessed, and the pressure is on Moses and Aaron to disprove it.

Datan and Abiram are gifted demagogues, agitating the people with manipulative appeals to popular prejudice and unfulfilled wishes. This is a dangerous moment for the people of Israel, with discontented murmurings and denigrations of the leaders’ activities and plans. They have used the language of future prosperity against current reality and against a rose tinted past that had never existed. Should they take over the leadership, what would have happened? God had not chosen them, did not seem to speak to them nor, from what the text tells us, had any relationship with them. The tribe of Reuben, who should have ordinarily have had access to leadership had lost it through the selfish and transgressive act of Reuben himself, who slept with Bilhah, mother of some of his brothers.

As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he addressed parting words to his sons, and spoke of Reuben like this:

Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigour, Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honour.Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace-my couch he mounted! ((Gen. 49:3-4)

And yet Datan and Abiram chose to ignore the shame that lost them their tribal dominance, and stand against Moses and Aaron, presumably in the hope of restoring that advantage for themselves again.

The rest of the story is simply awful. God enters the narrative, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” and they respond by asking God “Shall one man sin and you be angry with the whole community?”  Should the whole community pay the price of the arrogance of the group who challenged?

The test of the firepans leads to the public and horrible spectacle of the rebels and their families swallowed alive when the ground beneath them opened up momentarily, so that they fell into a pit which closed over them.  The two hundred and fifty men of renown who had supported the rebels and who had brought their fire pans and incense were destroyed by a fire that came ‘from the Eternal’ and the rest of the Israelites fled in panic and disarray, terrified by what had been unleashed, terrified for their futures.

So what do we learn? We learn that rebellion against leadership that comes from thwarted ambition is a dangerous event, all the more so when those who lead the rebellion are skilled demagogues who manipulate the language and the reality so that the majority of the people are left confused and unclear.  We learn that leadership needs to be firm and fairly applied, that leaders should not distance themselves from the people and their concerns, take them seriously rather than see them as distractions to the long term plan and irrelevant. We learn that ALL the people have value, all of us matter, and to discount us or ignore us is a strategy that will backfire in time as enough frustration and anger builds for someone to come and use it for their own purposes. We learn not to trust thoughtlessly, but to research and learn for ourselves, to see the world around us through our own eyes and not through the filter of those with an agenda of their own.

Sometimes the Torah portion speaks to the moment in a particularly powerful way. Korach and his fellow leaders were not ab initio coming from a false position, all the people ARE holy, Moses and Aaron’s style of leadership WAS autocratic and did not take account of the feelings of the people enough. But from a platform of rational and defendable positions they shifted to irrational and indefensible actions and a terrible scenario was let loose which had implications for the entry into the land for a generation.

 

Korach: being alongside each other signifies the presence of God. Standing over each other to dominate signifies the end of our purpose

The story of Korach is, at one level, the story of the tension between the individual and the community. Korach gathers together a group of interested parties in order to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron saying “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of the Eternal?” (Numbers 16:3)

Two phrases are used in this verse to describe community – kol ha’eidah, and kehal Adonai.  The community is both eidah: a group of people who share the same ‘witnessing’ or belief systems, and kehillah a group of people who assemble together in an organised fashion in order to share certain functions for mutual benefit.

Community has always been of critical importance to us Jews. Isaiah tells us “Ameich kulam tzadikim” and continues “They shall inherit the land for all time.” (Isaiah 60:21) We can read this verse as either “the people are all tzadikim (righteous) ” or that “the people when together, are tzadikim, and will inherit the land….

The former seems unlikely to say the least – indeed in our High Holy Day liturgy right before the vidui (confessional prayer) we actually remind God that we don’t have the right to say we are all tzadikim but ask for God’s mercy in the light of the zechut Avot, the relationship God had with our forebears. The latter – the idea that together we become better than we are individually, is a much more resonant idea for us and is one of the reasons for the obligation for communal prayer in a minyan. We are taught that when we pray together we will be heard, while our individual prayers may not have the power to reach the heavens.

There is a folk story that a young child on first learning the Hebrew alphabet pointed to the letter yod which is much smaller than the other letters, and asked her teacher ‘What is this small mark?’ to be told ‘It is the letter yod.’

Then she pointed to two yods written together and asked what they signified to be told that when the two small letters were written together, it was to indicate the reader must understand the particular name of God was being pointed to.

Fascinated, the child looked very carefully in the Chumash to find other examples of these two marks together, to see again the name of God, and then found that occasionally the two letters yod could be found one on top of the other. The teacher told her “this is a sign to mark the end of the sentence” “But they look so similar” said the child, “how do I know which is which?” And she was told “no, they are very different. For when the two sit next to each other as equals, they are the Name of God. When one stands over the other and dominates it, then they are not the Name of God and everything comes to an end.’

Isaiah speaks of a collective righteousness that depends on us being alongside each other, maintaining our equality and creating community. The folk story reminds us that if we don’t do this, but instead put ourselves over the other, dominate or suppress or even just not notice them as being people too, then the logical conclusion is that our history and being will come to an end.

Interestingly it is clear that Korach knows at some level the importance of communal activity. The two phrases he uses here for community – kol ha’eidah – the shared nature of our beliefs, and kehal Adonai – the shared nature of our activities which bring mutual benefit, remind us that we create community together based on shared purpose and values and that we must organise so that all of us are part of something greater than our individual desires. Korach failed because he wanted something more for himself than for the good of the community. He did what he had accused Moses of doing and set himself above the community rather than alongside it. We create community by working with each other, not through a set of top down policies. And if we address the needs of each other with compassion and care, we create a community that will last. Otherwise, when one stands over the other and dominates it, then we no longer represent the Name of God and everything comes to an end.’

Korach: the ultimate individualist

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuben, took men;  and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;  and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then lift you up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (Numbers 16:1-3)

 What is Korach saying in accusation to Moses and Aaron? The biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz notes the construction of the grammar of Korach’s statement which doesn’t say that the community (a single, collective unit) IS holy, but that “all of the congregation ARE holy, every one of them” – in other words Korach sees a group of individuals, he does not see a sharing and mutual entity. And so this careless slip in his language gives him away – Korach is not interested in the Israelite people becoming a holy nation, he is seeking a reward for personal ambition.

  We live in a world where it sometimes seems that each is out for themselves, at the expense of the rest of society. It is all too easy to demonise those we see as ‘other’, and often we are assisted in this by the rhetoric of those who should know better – leading to a rise in xenophobic rants, in attacks on other religions or ethnic groups as well as on those who are vulnerable economically and dependent upon the State for their maintenance.

 When we allow ourselves to separate from the community, when we allow society to fragment and individual’s desires to outweigh the good to society, we are on dangerous ground. Korach and his followers were, doing exactly this. They believed that the holiness of the individuals was of greater worth than the holiness of the community.

 Our modern post enlightenment world which so insistently values personal autonomy above the best outcome for society, has led us to a problematic place. Politicians have lost their reputations with the public, as have many other professions who are seen as greedy or corrupt or at least morally negligent. Those who give back to society are not as valued as those who make money and the desire for celebrity is becoming for many an end in itself. 

Yet still we doggedly read our biblical texts – “Rav Lachem – you have taken on too much for yourself” is the accusation that flies both ways between Moses and Korach. It may be true of them both, hubris meant that both lost touch with reality with terrible consequences for both men, and it may be true of us also. We take on too much for our own selves, forgetting the value of community and the importance of an integrated society, diverse and inclusive. The story of Korach and his focus on the individual is helpful for us to get our own morality back into a better balance.

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.