Bechukotai – Mutual Responsibility of the Jewish People Stems From a Curse

Based on teachings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, from his book: To Heal a Fractured World, Chapter 7.


Parashat Bechukotai ends the book of Leviticus.  It lists the blessings and curses that will befall on the People of Israel as a result of their obedience (or lack thereof) to the terms of the Covenant.  The list of blessings is short, most of those we read yesterday. The curses are many, elaborate and sometimes gruesome.  We recite them in low voice, almost a whisper.  I would like to focus on one in particular (Leviticus 26:36-37):

וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִ֣ים בָּכֶ֔ם וְהֵבֵ֤אתִי מֹ֙רֶךְ֙ בִּלְבָבָ֔ם בְּאַרְצֹ֖ת אֹיְבֵיהֶ֑ם וְרָדַ֣ף אֹתָ֗ם ק֚וֹל עָלֶ֣ה נִדָּ֔ף וְנָס֧וּ מְנֻֽסַת חֶ֛רֶב וְנָפְל֖וּ וְאֵ֥ין רֹדֵֽף׃

וְכָשְׁל֧וּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִ֛יו כְּמִפְּנֵי חֶ֖רֶב וְרֹדֵ֣ף אָ֑יִן וְלֹא תִֽהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ תְּקוּמָ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י אֹֽיְבֵיכֶֽם׃

Sefaria (somewhat modified) translate these two verses:

As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues.

With no one pursuing, they shall stumble a man over one’s brother as before the sword. You shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies,

The Hebrew word כָּשְׁלוּ [KASHLU] has several meanings, “stumble” is only one of them.  It also means “fail”.  The Hebrew Preposition between the words MAN and ONE’S BROTHER means BY and IN, in addition to ONE OVER THE OTHER.  Considering the additional meanings of the Hebrew text, one understands that the verse describes something that is worse than a personal failure.

The failure of one caused the others to fail – and fall – as well, regardless of what they were doing.  The personal and collective failure was as deep and mortal as the hit of a sword.  And it all is self-inflicted: the verse adds that it happens even without any external pursuer.

The phrase ‘They shall stumble over one another’ with the additional subtext I have added became the proof-text of the rabbinic doctrine of collective responsibility, and let me elaborate.

Cross Effects of One’s Deeds on the Others

The concept of the cross-effect of one’s deeds on the other is not difficult to understand.  If my neighbors let their properties deteriorate, the value of my house declines. If our fellow citizens do not abide by the law, the resulting lawlessness affects us all.  What happens to me is in part because what I do, and in part a result of what others do.

This cross-effect requires one of two conditions to exist.  One is the physical proximity that turns all of us to be neighbors.  The other is an overarching political structure that binds us together as fellow citizens.

Throughout the Bible, in the Land, Israel was an [עֵדָה] Edah – A People possessing a political structure.  First it was Yehoshua and then the Judges that led the People; the Kings came later.  They were also an [עַם] Am – a community living close to each other in a well-defined, bordered, territory.

The idea of the collective responsibility as a People, a Nation, is threaded throughout the Torah.  A good example is the second paragraph of the Sh’mah that uses the plural form: “Do not lure away to serve other gods and bow to them.  For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you…”

The Talmud [Sanhedrin 27b:19] clarifies that concept: “…This verse is homiletically interpreted to mean that the Jewish People shall stumble, one due to the iniquity of another, i.e., they are punished for each other’s sins, which teaches that all Jews are considered guarantors, i.e., responsible, for one another.

This Jewish value, “כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה” [KOL YISRAEL AREVIM ZEH LAZEH] – All Israel are guarantors, collaterals, responsible, to each other – stems from these few words.  On the face of it, this interpretation is totally counterintuitive.  The verse describes panic, a situation in which each one minds only one’s own safety; the responsibility to fate of the collective, the nation, is secondary, at best.  The verses describe the defeat of the Nation as such, the disperse of its individuals to foreign, enemy lands.  So, why did the Rabbis make this connection, using this particular verse?

The Unique Situation of the Jews as a People

After the destruction of the Second Temple the People of Israel lost their political autonomy.  The holocaust that the Romans inflicted presented the termination of Israel’s existence as a Nation.  The Jewish people were no longer an Am or an Edah.  This Exile will last longer than the Exile to Babylon that happened 600 years ago ago.  Furthermore: in addition to losing the identifiers as an Am and Edah, the whole ritual life and way of worship was lost as well.  The Land of Israel ceased to be the physical and intellectual home of most Jews.

This risk was put in eloquent words many centuries later by Baruḥ Spinoza (1632–77).  The Reform Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) wrote in 1848 to his Hungarian followers:

Now that the Jews have become integral elements of other peoples and states…all laws and institutions of Judaism which were based upon the election of a particular Jewish people – yes, of a particular Jewish state – and hence by their very nature implied exclusiveness and particularism, and served merely to strengthen the nationalistic sentiment…have lost all religious significance and obligation, and have given way to the national laws and institutions of such lands and peoples to which the Jews belong by birth and civic relationship”.   

The Mystical Nationhood of the Jewish People

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Died 160CE) – RASHBI – offered a new definition of Jewish nationhood in his commentary to Exodus 19:6:

You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹש

‘This verse teaches that they [the People of Israel] are like a single body and a single soul…If one sins, they are all punished…If one is injured, they all feel the pain.’

This concept offered a mystical definition of nationhood.  Jews do not form a nation, says RASHBI, in any conventional sense; the Jews are a nation in a mystical sense.  Being like a single body and a single soul joins the Jews in a profound bond of fellowship feeling and responsibility.  Even if they are not united physically or politically, none the less they are united spiritually.

“Where do we find the prooftext to RASHBI’s concept?” the Rabbis asked themselves.  “Where does Tora indicate that the Jews are responsible for one another even when they are in exile, and have no sovereignty nor territory?”

There is only one passage in the entire Torah that explicitly speaks about that effect: it is this verse in our weekly Parashah.

‘They will stumble because of one another’s sins’ refers to a time when Jews were in exile, dwelling in the countries of their enemies.  It underlines the profound spiritual truth that even though Jews were shattered politically and scattered geographically, they were still a nation, a People.  This covenant of mutual responsibility eternally bond the Jews, for better and worse .

This is the very same covenant that the Jewish People entered with God.  First it happened at Sinai, then at the banks of the Jordan prior to entering Eretz Yisrael.   And then later, after returning from the Exile during the days of Ezra and Neḥemyah.  The Jewish People’s fate and destiny are indivisible: they are still a nation – constituted by the responsibility they individually and collectively have undertaken to one another.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), defined the concept in chapter 32 of the Tanya: ‘Therefore all Israelites are brothers by virtue of the source of their souls in the One God; only their bodies are separated.’  He means that every Jewish soul is literally a part of the One Undividable God and therefore the collective Jewish Soul is one.  As Jews, we are individuals only as bodies, not as souls, which are part of Unity.

Fulfilling the commandment ואהבת לרעך כמוך – ‘You shall love to your fellow human being as yourself’ is natural and inevitable.  You and your fellow are both parts of a larger self, the collective soul of the Jewish people, an integral part of God.

I have witnessed this concept turn into reality so many times personally as a part of a Nation.  The State of Israel as well as individuals, went out of their way to help Jews in distress around the world.  It manifested itself in the way Israel has always responded to calls for help coming from other nations due to natural (and other) catastrophes.

We do it as an act of following the commandment to extend lovingkindness to humanity, and not for the sake of publicity and recognition.  I am sure that each and every one of you has witness and took part of similar situations.  It is my honor and privilege to belong to this People, and I do hope that it is also yours.

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