Parashat Shoftim 5781
With new strains of the pandemic surging here, and all around the world, the government, trying to avoid a full lockdown, is calling for a sense of responsibility from all citizens: to get vaccinated; to get back to observing the protocols of masks and distancing, despite the minor inconveniences; and to realize we are all in this together. But it’s been an uphill battle. As Jews we should be good at responsibility and solidarity, it’s what Torah is all about, it’s the core of our culture. We had better rediscover these core principles together, and fast.
This week’s parashah ends with a painful case, but an important message. A body is found in a field between two towns. The town measured to be closest performs an expiation ceremony led by the elders of its court, at the climax of which elders declare to God:
דברים פרק כא
(ז) יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שפכה שָֽׁפְכוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ:(ח) כַּפֵּר֩ לְעַמְּךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל אֲשֶׁר־פָּדִ֙יתָ֙ יְקֹוָ֔ק וְאַל־תִּתֵּן֙ דָּ֣ם נָקִ֔י בְּקֶ֖רֶב עַמְּךָ֣ יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see. Atone for Your nation Israel, who you have redeemed, HaShem, and do not place innocent blood in the midst of Your nation Israel.
The Mishnah Sotah addresses this declaration and asks:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף מה עמוד ב
וכי על דעתינו עלתה שזקני ב”ד שופכי דמים הן? אלא, שלא בא על ידינו ופטרנוהו (בלא מזון), ולא ראינוהו והנחנוהו (בלא לוייה).
Would it occur to us that the elders of the court are themselves shedders of blood? Rather, the deceased was not dismissed from under our care without food nor left alone without accompaniment.
The elders, on behalf of the whole town, don’t just declare that they didn’t kill the deceased directly. That’s obvious and not enough. They acknowledge that when the deceased came to town, they and the whole community were responsible for his complete welfare and they affirm that they fulfilled their responsibilities, including providing him food for his journey onward and protective accompaniment on his way out of town. Had they not fulfilled these responsibilities, they would have been complicit in his death, because they would have left him weakened and alone, in a condition vulnerable to harm. The elders express what it means to take responsibility for each other and acknowledge that when we don’t protect each other’s health and wellbeing we are guilty of endangering each other, to the point of shedding blood.
The Torah and the Gemara are not telling tales for narrow intellectual gamesmanship. These are mitzvot meant to be applied directly and urgently to our lives. Maimonides, in his Laws of Murder and Guarding Life, discusses the halakhot of this expiation ceremony, including the principle of total responsibility for others, and follows this with mitzvot and halakhot emphasizing that we have responsibility to guard the health and welfare of others and ourselves under all circumstances, including preventing spread of illness (chapters 9-11). It should be inconceivable that anyone who considers themselves a Torah observing Jew at any level would ignore these halakhot.
In truth, the Torah principle of responsibility for others goes even further. The Gemara Baba Metzia discusses the obligations of an employer towards employees, including to provide food according to local custom. The Mishnah brings a true story as an example of how far this goes:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף פג עמוד א
מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן מתיא שאמר לבנו: צא שכור לנו פועלין. הלך ופסק להם מזונות. וכשבא אצל אביו, אמר לו: בני, אפילו אם אתה עושה להם כסעודת שלמה בשעתו לא יצאת ידי חובתך עמהן, שהן בני אברהם יצחק ויעקב. אלא, עד שלא יתחילו במלאכה צא ואמור להם: על מנת שאין לכם עלי אלא פת וקטנית בלבד.
An incident occurred in which Rabbi Yochanan ben Matia said to his son “go and hire day-workers for us.” His son went and [hired them] and stipulated they would get food. When he came back to his father, his father said “my son, even if you would make for them a feast like King Solomon would get at the height of his reign you would not fulfill your responsibility to them, for they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. So, before they start work, go back to them and say “on condition that you only expect from us bread and beans.”
The young son had mentioned food as part of the contract in an open-ended way. His father’s point is that in truth, all Israelites, no matter what their economic position, are descendants of our illustrious ancestors and therefore our fundamental responsibility for them is endless. When it comes to food for those working for us, we should provide to every Israelite even more than the feasts King Solomon would get every day at the height of his reign. The Gemara has fun with this, noting that the King had one thousand wives, and each one was hoping to dine with him every day, so each one had the chefs of the palace prepare an opulent meal for him every day. The Gemara goes on to calculate all the cows and sheep and fowl and pies and cakes that would have been cooked up. We get the point.
Emmanuel Levinas does a profound analysis of this passage in his Nine Talmudic Readings. He notes first that though the Gemara refers to descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,
I have it from an eminent master [probably the great and mysterious Monsieur Chouchani]: each time Israel is mentioned in the Talmud one is certainly free to understand by it a particular ethnic group which is probably fulfilling an incomparable destiny. But to interpret in this manner would be to reduce the general principle in the idea enunciated in the Talmudic passage, to forget that Israel means a people who has received the Law and, as a result, a human nature which has reached the fullness of its responsibilities and its self-consciousness. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are human beings who are no longer childlike. Before a self-conscious humanity… our duties are limitless. Workers belong to this perfected humanity, despite the inferiority of their condition and the coarseness of their profession… The extent of the obligation towards human beings who are fully human beings has no limits. One more time let us recall the word of the Lithuanian Rabbi Israel Salanter: the material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual responsibilities. (98-99).
The Gemara, as Levinas observes, is teaching us that our responsibility towards others is not just to provide minimal hospitality and protection. It’s an endless responsibility for which we are obligated to be proactively on the lookout for the best welfare and best interests of others. In practice, the full extent of this may be “beyond human strength,” says Levinas, so the Gemara admits that it is possible to come to a mutual agreement to set some limits: “it is possible, when the other person is in principle infinite for me, to limit the extent of my duties to a degree, but only to a degree. The contract is more concerned with limiting my duties than defending my rights (100).” The bottom line is that Torah is not about rights and entitlements, but about our responsibilities to care for the health and welfare of other human beings, and these responsibilities are practical, detailed, vast and endless.
When God asks Kayin, the first murderer, “where is Hevel your brother?” he answered “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian (4:9)?” To this despicable evasion of responsibility the entire Torah answers a resounding Yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ guardians. We may think of ourselves as morally superior to Kayin, but if, in a raging pandemic, we do not put on a mask in enclosed spaces, if we do not maintain effective distance from each other, if we self-centeredly refuse to receive vaccines that have been adequately proven to be safe and effective, if we insist on rights and entitlements to behaviors that put others, and ultimately the whole society, the whole world, at risk, including large gatherings for Torah and Tefillah and other mitzvot or customs that could fulfilled in safer ways – we are no better than the criminally irresponsible Kayin.
The month of Elul is dedicated to Tshuvah, to fixing. Not just fixing little ritual infractions, but fixing substantive issues, and we have plenty to handle. May we all wake up and realize we are each other’s caring guardians, and this is the essence and the glory of what it means to be human.