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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Collective Responsibility: In Crisis and Beyond

by Rabbi Shmuel Hain (Posted on May 30, 2024)
Topics: Bechukotai, Sefer Vayikra, Torah

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In the middle of this week’s terrifying Tohakhah, the Rabbis located a core halakhic and theological principle.

They will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, even though no one is chasing them! You will have no power to stand before your enemies. (Leviticus 26:37)

“‘They will stumble over each other’”—read this as ‘stumble because of the sins of another’: this teaches that all Israelites are responsible for one another.” (Sifra ad loc.)

The idea that “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,”—all of Israel are guarantors for each other, has a number of significant applications. It serves as the halakhic basis for an individual who has already fulfilled their own mitzvah of recitation (eg. Kiddush on Shabbat) to still be able to perform that recitation on behalf of another.

Why, of all places, did rabbinic tradition root this concept of arvut (mutual responsibility) in such a frightening verse? Surely, there were other, more uplifting, alternatives. For example, the rabbis note the singular verb “Vayihan” describing the feeling of unity at the encampment at Sinai (see Rashi, Exodus 19:2). Why couldn’t that verse have served as the source for collective responsibility?

By locating the source of collective responsibility in the admonition, the rabbis were conveying a deep teaching. In fact, this teaching has taken on additional resonance as we continue to navigate the trauma of October 7th and the war in Gaza.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was a profound sense of connectivity with our brothers and sisters in Israel. Their pain was our pain; their losses, our losses. The rabbis knew that crisis and catastrophe engender natural feelings of arvut. In moments of true terror, the rabbis teach us, we feel a deep sense of responsibility for each other.

But as the weeks and months pass, it may be more challenging to maintain those same, intense feelings of connectivity. That is the ongoing challenge of arvut, to continue to be guarantors for each other even when we may feel less connected, even after the initial catastrophe.

Indeed, Talmudic commentators develop two different explanations for how arvut works. One view says that since we are all guarantors for each other, I have not really fulfilled my own personal mitzvah unless and until all of Israel has fulfilled that mitzvah. Since your mitzvah is my mitzvah, your lack of fulfillment results in my own lack of fulfillment, thereby allowing me to assist you in the mitzvah.

But there is another approach to arvut. It suggests that my own mitzvah is not impacted in any way by your lack of fulfillment. We are two separate individuals. As such, your status cannot affect mine. Instead, the magic of arvut is that as your guarantor, I am capable of traversing the gap between my own complete fulfillment and your lack of fulfillment. I can help you fulfill your obligation, even though my personal obligation has already been fully discharged.

This second model of arvut may be even more ambitious than the first in that it acknowledges the integrity of each individual while allowing one person to still assist the other. It can also help guide us as we attempt to remain connected to each other for the long haul. Though we may not feel the same intense feeling of connectivity at all times, we have the ability—the responsibility—to continue to see ourselves as the guarantors for the entirety of the Jewish people.

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