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Nitzavim – Mutual Responsibility

You stand today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d … the hidden [sins] are for Hashem, our G-d, and the revealed [sins] are for us and our children, forever, to perform all the words of this Torah
(Bamidbar 29:9, 28)

Commenting on the words of the pasuk, “The hidden are for Hashem, our G-d, and the revealed are for us and our children,” Rashi explains that the verse refers to transgressions. Hidden sins, those that we are unaware of, are for Hashem—the community is not held accountable for them. But revealed sins, those transgressions that the public is aware of, are for us to prevent, and the community is held accountable if it fails to do so.

The source for Rashi’s interpretation is a passage of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 43b), in which Tanaim dispute when the concept of mutual responsibility among Israel was initiated, and whether the concept applies even to hidden transgressions. As Meiri explains, the opinion that extends communal responsibility even to hidden sins requires us to devise means by which to unearth iniquity and vice wherever it might surface.

In addition to the verses in our Parashah, the principle of arvus is also extracted from a different pasuk, which states that a person will “stumble over his brother” (Vayikra 26). Chazal (Torah Kohanim) interpret this to mean “in his brother’s sin, for all Israel are responsible for one another.”

We take the opportunity this week to discuss some of the halachic aspects of the concept of mutual responsibility found among Israel.

Rebuke and Mutual Responsibility

Two distinct halachic maxims define the concept of mutual responsibility among Israel. One is the Torah mitzvah of tochechah, which requires us to reprove transgressors, as the verse states: “You shall surely reprove your friend” (Vayikra 19:17). The other is the above-mentioned principle of mutual responsibility. It would appear that the two concepts are closely related.

The mitzvah of tochecha is ruled by the Rambam: “One who sees his friend transgressing, or going in ways that are not good, must bring him back to goodness, and inform him that his is transgressing with his evil deeds” (De’os 6:7). The Rambam adds that one who fails to reprove another bears part of the burden of the sin his fellow commits: “Whoever is able to reprimand, yet fails to do so, is ensnared by the same sin, because he was able to prevent it.” This is also implied by Targum Unkelus’s translation of the final words of the verse: “and you shall not bear him a sin”—one who fails to reprove his fellow takes a share in the sin itself. This punishment requires scrutiny. Granted, a person who fails to rebuke has failed to perform a mitzvah, but why does he share in the punishment of another’s sin?

The answer to this question is latent in the concept of arvus, the mutual responsibility inherent to Israel. The idea of arvus dictates that the entire nation of Israel is considered one body, “as one man, with one heart.” The Midrash (Tana de’bei Eliyahu Rabbah, chap. 11) states that because of this concept, one who fails to rebuke another shares his sin, likening the nation of Israel to a single ship: “If one chamber of the ship is torn, the entire ship is torn.”

Thus, we find that in the time of the Destruction of the Temple, the tzaddikim of the generation were the first to be punished for the iniquity of the nation. As the Gemara relates (Shabbos 55a), they were punished because they should have protested, but failed to do so. Elsewhere (Shevuos 39b), the Gemara explains that the punishment for not objecting and reprimanding is slighter than the punishment of he who commits the actual transgression.

A person’s sin thus goes beyond the realm of the personal to penetrate the realm of the national. For the “hidden,” sins that we are unable to prevent, there is no collective punishment, for there is no blame. But one who was able to prevent a sin, yet failed to prevent it, partially shares the punishment for the transgression itself. To a certain degree, the sin is considered his own.

Confession of Sins Never Transgressed

Beyond the “collective punishment” implied by arvus, the concept of mutual responsibility also has a number of halachic ramifications.

An interesting and timely consequence of arvus is found in the recitation of the vidui passage, whose words are on our tongues on Yom Kippur. Among the transgressions mentioned, a person is liable to find many sins that he knows he has not transgressed, neither intentionally nor inadvertently. Should he recite them nonetheless, or perhaps it is better to leave them out, so as not speak a falsehood?

Addressing this question, the Ben Ish Chai (First Year, Ki Tisa, sec. 1) writes in the name of Chesed Le’Alafim: “The entire vidui should be recited, including even those transgressions that a person knows he has not violated, because all of Israel is a single body, and all are responsible for one another.”

The Ben Ish Chai adds that this is especially true for cases in which a person could have prevented a sin, yet failed to do so. However, implicit in his explanation is that even without this addition, the very concept of mutual responsibility is sufficient for reciting the entire vidui service. ((The Ben Ish Chai adds another reason why a person is able to confess sins that he has never committed: previous incarnations. It is possible that a person committed sins in previous incarnations, and has yet to atone for them. ))

Rebuking Wrongdoers

In the field of tochecha itself, the obligation to rebuke wrongdoers ((Not to mention that the rebuke should done in a pleasant way. )) , we find important ramifications that pertain to the concept of arvus.

The instruction to rebuke one who sins is expressed in the Torah with the words, “you shall surely rebuke your friend (amitecha).” The wording of the instruction implies that the mitzvah applies only to those who are defined as amitecha, which Chazal in a number of places (Bava Metzia 59a; Shevuos 30a) interpret as “one who is with you in Torah and mitzvos.”

In the light of this interpretation, there would be not mitzvah to rebuke those who are not “with you in Torah and mitzvos,” and the mitzvah would be confined to generally observant Jews who slip up. This, indeed, is the halachic ruling with respect to the prohibition of onaas devarim, harmful and hurtful speech (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:1, and Sema 3), and the obligation to judge one’s fellow favorable (see Sefer Chafetz Chaim, 7:5 and 8:5), both of which are limited by the definition of “one’s friend” (amitecha).

Yet, many authorities who mention the obligation to rebuke others fail to mention the distinction between those who are considered amitecha and those who are not. It is noteworthy that the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 608) does mention the qualification, yet it remains notably absent from many authorities, and even the Mishnah Berurah concludes by leaving open the question of whether one must rebuke individuals who do not keep mitzvos on a leteavon (out of desire) level. This observation has been raised by Maharam Shik (mitzvah 240), who leaves the matter as being difficult.

In answer to this question, it is worthy of note that a number of commentaries interpret the word amitecha as having unique meaning in the context of tochecha. The Maharsha (Yevamos 65b), for instance, writes as follows: “We can explain that the word amitecha refers to somebody who is your friend in mitzvos and ready to accept rebuke, as opposed to the contrary—one who is not ready to accept rebuke.” From the words of Maharsha, and a number of additional commentaries, we see that the word is interpreted not in accordance with its standard meaning, but as excluding those who won’t tolerate rebuke.

We can suggest that the reason for this is the principle of mutual responsibility—arvus. Even somebody who does not perform the mitzvos of the Torah remains within the mutual responsibility of “all of Israel are responsible for one another.” Similarly, the principle that a person who has performed a mitzvah is nonetheless able to perform it again for another—as mentioned below—applies to all Jews, even those generally distant from mitzvah performance. Because all members of the nation are responsible for one another’s spiritual wellbeing, it follows that the word amitecha cannot be interpreted in its usual, limiting sense. Rather than qualifying the obligation of rebuke to those who keep Torah and mitzvos, we exclude only those who are unprepared to accept rebuke.

Rebuke of Those Who Reject Rebuke

In fact, authorities dispute whether or not the obligation of rebuke extends even to those who will certainly reject it. According to the Yere’im (mitzvah 223), only with regard to inadvertent transgression should one desist from rebuking if the person involved will not accept rebuke. This is implied in the Talmudic maxim whereby “it is better that they should sin inadvertently, than that they should sin intentionally” (Beitzah 30a). With regard to intentional sin, however, there remains an obligation of rebuke even for those who will certainly reject it.

The Semag (mitzvah 11), however, disagrees with this opinion, and maintains that there is no obligation of rebuke for those who will not accept the rebuke. On the contrary, he writes that it would be wrong to rebuke such sinners, and doing so would violate the Talmudic maxim “just as it is a mitzvah to say something that will be heard, so it is a mitzvah to desist from saying something that will not be heard” (Yevamos 65b).

The above dispute is discussed by the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah, loc. cit.), who explains that according to the opinion of the Yere’im (which is ruled by the Magen Avraham, and brought without dissent in the main body of the Mishnah Berurah), the obligation to rebuke the sinner applies despite the fact that the punishment for the transgression will not apply to those who fail to do so. The principle of arvus, it would appear, does not apply to such cases, yet the obligation of rebuke remains in place.

This opinion, however, which obligates rebuke even when the rebuke will have no effect on the sinner, requires further scrutiny. Why must one reprimand a sinner if the reprimand will not have any impact? According to the Shulchan Aruch Harav (Orach Chaim 608:5), the answer to this question is the principle of arvus: the mitzvah of tochecha includes the concept of mutual responsibility, and this concept extends the mitzvah even to cases in which the transgressing individual will certainly remain unmoved.

On account of our mutual responsibility for all of Israel, the sin is considered “our sin.” Therefore, even if we cannot influence the sinner, we are obligated to voice our objection and our rebuke.

Mutual Responsibility for Women

The most frequent application of the principle of arvus is in the realm of mitzvah fulfillment. On account of the principle of mutual responsibility, Chazal state that even after a person has performed a mitzvah for himself, he may perform the mitzvah once for the sake of somebody else.

This halachic ruling commonly applies to the recitation of berachos for mitzvos: Even after a person has recited a berachah for himself, he remains able to repeat the same berachah on behalf of another (see Tosafos, Berachos 48a). Thus, a single person may recite Kiddush several times, on behalf of many people, as can be seen in hospital wards where one person often makes a round of reciting Kiddush for patients.

An important halachic question is the status of women: Are women included in this aspect of arvus, or not?

In discussing whether or not women are obligated by Torah law to recite birkas hamazon (or whether their obligation is only rabbinic), the Gemara states that if their obligation is only rabbinic, women would be unable to fulfill the mitzvah on behalf of men. Explaining this principle, the Rosh (Berachos chap, 3, sec. 13) writes that women would be unable to perform the mitzvah for men, because they are not included in the concept of arvus.

Dwelling on the statement of the Rosh, the Dagul Mervavah (Orach Chaim 271) questions how, in view of the exclusion of women from mutual responsibility, a man is able to recite Kiddush on behalf of his wife on Friday Night. The obligation of the husband, according to the Magen Avraham (271:2), might only be rabbinic, since he has already fulfilled the Torah obligation by means of the Arvis prayer. The obligation of the wife, in turn, is a full Torah obligation. This being the case, the only way in which husband can fulfill the mitzvah for wife is by reliance on the arvus principle—yet surely the Rosh states that women are not included in the concept?

The answer offered by the Dagul Mervavah is that although women are not responsible for men, men are fully responsible for women. Therefore, a husband can perform the mitzvah of Kiddush for his wife even after he has performed it for himself.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (glosses to Shulchan Aruch, ibid.) takes an altogether different approach. According to his understanding, the Rosh never meant to exclude women from the general concept of arvus. The only exclusion intended was with respect to the specific mitzvah of birkas hamazon, in cases where a woman is exempt from the Torah mitzvah. The reason for this is that if a particular mitzvah does not apply to women, they cannot be responsible for men’s fulfillment of the mitzvah. Arvus, according to this understanding, is not a general concept, but a particular concept for each and every mitzvah. If the mitzvah does not apply to a particular person, the specific halachah of arvus would not apply for that particular mitzvah.

As the Maharit (Kiddushin 70b) and others have highlighted, the verses of our Parashah, which make explicit mention of women as being part of the covenant, seem to imply that women are part of the general concept of arvus, affirming the above opinion of Rabbi Akiva Eiger.

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