All Jews share responsibility for, fate of one another

Rabbi Garth Silberstein serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

BY RABBI GARTH SILBERSTEIN

There is an important principle in Jewish law, which states that all Jews are responsible for one another: Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh. 

This idea was perhaps first demonstrated by Yehudah, who, as we read in last week’s parsha, told his father, Yaakov, that he would take responsibility for his brother Binyamin’s welfare, saying, “I will guarantee him (anokhi e`ervenu), from my own hand you may demand him,” employing the same Hebrew root areiv, which means guarantor. 

This week, we find out just how seriously Yehudah took that responsibility. After Yosef, who still has not revealed his identity to his brothers, declares that he will keep Binyamin as his slave as punishment for allegedly stealing a goblet, Yehudah makes good the promise he made to his father and stands up in defense of Binyanim, going so far as to offer himself as a slave in place of Binyamin.  

If Yehudah’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his brother Binyamin is the paradigm for areivut, the mutual responsibility shared by all Jews, then we all have an obligation to step in and get involved when our fellow Jews are threatened.

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However, areivut goes deeper than just helping one another in times of danger. The Talmud derives the principle of Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh from a verse (Leviticus 26:37) that describes the Israelites stumbling, each man over his brother. The Talmud explains this doesn’t mean that we will literally trip over one another, but that each of us suffers the consequences of one another’s sins. 

Areivut, mutual responsibility, does not just meant voluntarily putting ourselves on the line to look out for one another, just as Yehudah did, but that whether we want it or not, we are all held accountable for one another’s actions.

A story is told of Shlomo HaMelekh, King Solomon, that a man with two heads came before him. The man’s brothers insisted that he was one person and thus entitled to only one share of their father’s inheritance, while the man insisted he was two separate people and thus entitled to two shares of the inheritance. Shlomo instructed that hot water be poured on one of the two heads. When the other head screamed, Shlomo declared that “since one head was scalded and the other head screamed, they are one person.” 

If we see ourselves as fundamentally separate individuals, then the idea of being punished for one another’s sins seems cruel and arbitrary. However, if we understand that we are one people, indivisible, then it is only natural that each Jew bears the moral and spiritual consequences of every other Jew’s actions. Anything that happens to one of us affects all of us.

The Hebrew word Areiv, guarantor, or one taking responsibility for another, comes from a root that means to be mixed together. We are all responsible for one another because we are fundamentally bound up together, like one spiritual body with many heads.

Very often, when we see or hear about our fellow Jews doing something that we disagree with, we are tempted to draw distinctions, to explain why they are not like us. In so doing, we hope to separate ourselves from them, so that we will not suffer the consequences of their actions. However, in reality, we cannot separate ourselves from our fellow Jews, neither in the eyes of our non-Jewish neighbors nor in the eyes of G-d.

We are one people, responsible for one another’s welfare, both material and spiritual. In the eyes of the non-Jewish world and the eyes of G-d, there is no separation between right wing Jews and left wing Jews, between Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist Jews, between religious Jews and secular Jews, between Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews. The actions of every Jew reflects on all Jews.

Because we cannot separate ourselves from our fellow Jews with whom we differ, then our only choice is to lovingly engage with them. If we approach them with love and respect, we might just possibly persuade them to change their minds or behavior, or we might learn something that helps us better understand and respect them even if we do not agree. 

Once we remember that we are one people and cannot be separated, then agreeing to share the fate of our fellow Jews, even those we disagree with, no longer seems like an act of heroism. On the contrary, it is only natural.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.