“No man is an island, entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
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.”
(John Donne, 17th c. England)
Parashat bechukotai gives us a few stark warnings of punishment if we abandon God’s way. The Promised Land will become barren; there will be war against other nations, and even a threat of cannibalism of the worst kind. Finally, the ultimate threat of exile from the land with only a few left behind upon it. This is followed by a strange curse against those remaining in the land:
וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ-בְּאָחִיו כְּמִפְּנֵי-חֶרֶב וְרֹדֵף אָיִן
With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword. (Leviticus 26:37)
This passage raises an interesting question. If they are not pursued by an enemy why should they stumble over one another?
What is causing them to do so if there is no apparent external factor?
The Talmud (Tractate Shevuot 39a) deliberates whether God’s punishment for transgressions is collective or individual. The Rabbis challenge: Shouldn’t it be the case that punishment be given to the very individual who transgresses the commandments of the Torah? Yet, it is written in our passage ‘With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another’. This means that one stumbles because of the transgression of the other. The Talmud then concludes that this teaches us:
‘מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בַּזֶּה’
This teaches us that all Israel have mutual responsibility for one another’.
This requires some unpacking. The Talmud here indicates that the stumbling upon one another is caused by our transgressions. Yet, it is also not necessarily our own misdeeds that cause the stumble as it might be the actions of another. We are therefore connected through our sins and we cannot ignore the wrongs of others in society even if we ourselves do not engage in them.
This idea of mutual responsibility for the wrongs of others is reflected well in the High Holyday liturgy. Some confessions are recited in the first-person plural (we). ‘We have stolen’, yet not everyone is a thief. ‘We gave bad advice’, yet not everyone is an advisor. Still, at the time of confession we take responsibility for our own sins and also the sins of others in our community.
Earlier in Leviticus we read:
לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא
You shall not hate your fellow in your heart. Reprove your fellow SO THAT you do not carry his guilt. (Lev 19:17)
The warning of scripture is clear here. We cannot simply mind our own business and ignore the misdeeds of others in our society. In order that we do not hate others in our society, and in order that we do not carry the burden of their guilt, we must be able to take steps to help others who fail to reach their potential and take responsibility. While ignorance of the other leads to hate, a reproof that comes from love is also likely to be received with love.
‘No man is an Island’: There is a familiar joke about a Jew who was swept away to a Desert Island and had built two synagogues on it. When showing them to his rescuers he pointed at one and said? “I visited this one every day three times a day” when asked why he built the other one, he replied: “This is the one I would never visit”! The reality is that Judaism teaches us to take the social responsibility towards others in our society and towards the rest of the world. It is close to impossible for the individual to lead a Jewish life on a Desert Island and be completely detached from the rest of the community! We therefore must take responsibility for ourselves, others in our family, community, country and the rest of the world. The alternative carries the risk of a very heavy fall.
Rabbi Yuval Keren
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.