On Social Justice and Social responsibility
Rabbi Avichai Katzin
In this week's Sedra we find the foundation and basis for social justice. It opens with a description of those standing during the covenant: captains of tribes; elders; officers; and all the men of Israel, in addition to the hewers of wood and drawers of water. These terms refer to the simple laborers, whereas Rashi, in his commentary, says these are the Canaanites who converted during the time of Moshe. Although the people in question are converts who had impure intentions, who joined the nation deceitfully, much like the Givonites at the time of Yehoshua, Moshe takes them in and appoints them hewers of wood and drawers of water. In other words, the covenant is not entered into by individuals, or by a single stratum within the social fabric of Bnei Israel's society. It is entered into by the entire nation, including those strangers who have joined it, as the Torah attests:
לְמַעַן הָקִים אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם וְהוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לֵאלֹקִים
… that He may establish you today for a people to Himself, and that He may be a G-d to you
The covenant aims to establish a nation, which is comprised of various strata: from the hewer of wood and drawer of water to the tribe captains; from the current generation and the future ones – everyone is included in the covenant. What is the meaning of this covenant, designed not only to create a bond between us and G-d, but to consolidate us all into one unit called 'a nation'? the Torah answers this question within several verses, explaining the consequence and significance of entering into this covenant:
פֶּן יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה אוֹ מִשְׁפָּחָה אוֹ שֵׁבֶט אֲשֶׁר לְבָבוֹ פֹנֶה הַיּוֹם מֵעִם ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ לָלֶכֶת לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם
… lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turns away on this day from Hashem our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations
This refers to the individual – a man or woman (or family or tribe) that plan and consider turning to idolatry. Although this verse refers to the sin of a single individual, the punishment described by the Torah is a collective one:
וַיִּחַר אַף ה' בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא לְהָבִיא עָלֶיהָ אֶת כָּל הַקְּלָלָה הַכְּתוּבָה בַּסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה
… and the anger of Hashem was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book
Why is the entire nation punished for an individual's sin? This question, says Rashi, may be raised by the Bnei Israel themselves: "And what are we to do? Why are you punishing everyone for the ruminations of the individual?" The answer lies in the verses:
הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת
The secret things belong to Hashem our G-d; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Meaning, Hashem's answer to this question would be: "I do not punish you for the secret things", those are reserved for our G-d and He will punish the individual for them as He deems fit, but as for those that are revealed, it is up to us and to our children to condemn them, and if we choose to pass no judgment on them, the entire nation will suffer the consequences.
Rashi teaches us yet another detail: there is a special diacritic point on the words
which teaches us that even for the things that are revealed, Hashem did not punish the entire nation until it had crossed the River Jordanand took upon itself the oath at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, and its members became mutually responsible for one another.
From that we can learn two things: first, the individual cannot say: "What do the sins of others have to do with me? Each person should live as they deem fit!" and why? Because the Torah teaches us the well-known phrase Kol Israel areivim ze laze – the People of Israel are mutually responsible for one another – and every Jew is responsible for the sins of other Jews. Second, this mutual responsibility over the sins of others was renewed once we had crossed the River Jordan and entered the Land of Israel.
The educational message the Torah is conveying to us is that no Jew is divorced from society, and all must therefore open their eyes to others' actions too. The Torah does not accept the type of pluralism that allows each person to do what they will, as long as they live and let live. The Torah expects every Jew to care about and show concern for others. When a Jew sees his friend act unfairly, he is obligated to reprimand him (Mitzvat Tochecha) and to attempt to lead him back to the straight and narrow. Otherwise he is also regarded as an accomplice, and may be punished for not preventing the sin and not reprimanding the sinner.
The Torah teaches us to live a life of social responsibility. The basis for this viewpoint is shared by true social justice as well. The discourse on rights cannot be dissociated from the discourse on duties. First, because one cannot exist without the other – if those that have special rights are entitled to access, it means that society is obligated to grant them access. But second, the Torah adds another dimension – if I care about the sins committed by another because I may be punished for them, then I will also grow to care about others in general. One must be careful when dealing with orphans and widows because their spirit is very low, despite having riches, even a king's widow and his orphans should be handled with care, as the Torah tells us:
כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן
– You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. How, then, should we treat them? We should speak softly to them, treat them with respect, refrain from causing them physical pain with hard work or offense with harsh words, and spare their money more than we would have spared our own.
At the root of social justice lies the recognition that members of a society must look out for one another. This fundamental issue is manifested in the will each of us has to improve the other's spiritual world and meet their material needs, in order to live in a more caring society, and in one that would ensure its members are treated with social justice.
Rabbi Avichai Katzin
is the head of the Bet Midrash LeTorah of the Sha'arei Mishpat college, the head of the Reshit communal Bet Midrash in Ra'anana, and a rabbi in one of Ra'anana's congregations.