All Jews are responsible for one another

By Rabbi Howard Wolk
Parashat Nitzavim

The Torah portion of Nitzavim is invariably read on the last Shabbat of the year. “Atem nitzavim ha-yom kulchem… — You are standing, before your G-d…every man of Israel…to enter into the covenant of your G-d and His vow, which your G-d has sealed with you today” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

What innovation was there in this covenant in the Plains of Moav? The Children of Israel had already sworn to a brit (Covenant) at Sinai 40 years earlier.

The new covenant was indeed a momentous event, in that it added a new element of mutual responsibility. From this time on, the actions of an individual are no longer his concern only, a matter for private accounting with G-d, but relate to the nation as a whole. This was the beginning of the concept, “All of Israel are responsible for one another” (Gemara Shavuot 39a). From which follows, “One who has already recited any of the blessings can recite it again for others” (Gemara Rosh Hashanah 29a).

Rashi explains, “All of Israel are responsible for one another in performance of mitzvot.” I am responsible not only to fulfill mitzvot myself, but also to see to it that other Jews obey mitzvot, too. If I recited Kiddush already, I may still recite it for another person and another (no limit) — to enable others to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush.

If I already heard the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, I can blow the shofar for others to enable them to fulfill this mitzvah.

What a beautiful concept — Kol Yisrael areivin zeh b’zeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another. This is not just a nationalistic nicety — but it has halachic and ethical teeth to it.

Areivin, from the word Ahrev, means not only responsible for, but also “a guarantee,” a “surety” — as Judah assured Jacob when he offered his son as a guarantee for Joseph’s safe return (Ahrev et ha-naar). We must help guarantee the religious and physical wellbeing of other Jews.

Rabbi Israel Salanter compared the Jewish people to the human body. When a person suffers a migraine headache or a broken limb, the pain is not localized. It is not only the head or arm that aches, but the person’s entire body. So, too, when a Jew anywhere suffers physical pain or mental anguish, we all must feel the pain.

In the Torah portion, why did our mutual responsibility begin right before we entered Israel and not at Mount Sinai?

Perhaps this level of responsibility is dependent on entry into Eretz Yisrael.

The Maharal explains: “Eretz Yisrael is uniquely tied to the nation and therefore all of Israel who live there can be considered as a single individual. That is why when they entered the Land of Israel they became responsible for one another.” Before entering the land, the people could be considered as separate entities; even if there was a unifying force, they were still separate. It was only in the Land itself that the separate tribes became a nation, a single unit. This is what transformed mutual responsibility from a theoretical concept to a real physical obligation.

We vividly see the enormous chesed, loving kindness, performed by Hashem in the desert in providing us with all our needs and protecting us from all harm.

Yet, upon entry into Israel, the manna was to stop. Instead of being given all of their needs, the people were now required to conquer the land, defend themselves and produce all that was necessary to sustain material and spiritual life. With those obligations starting, the responsibilities to one another also commenced. The people were now forged into a single unit.

In a similar way, the entire world can be considered as a single unit. As was taught by Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon: “Since the world is judged according to the majority and the individual is also judged according to the majority, when one performs a single mitzvah he should be happy that he has brought a benefit to himself and to the whole world” (Kiddushin 40b).

 One single act can affect not only that person’s neshama (soul) but also the entire world.

– Shabbat Shalom.

– Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah.

– Shanah Tovah.

Happy and Healthy New Year.

Rabbi Howard Wolk is community chaplain of Jewish Family Service; rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla; and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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