Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh ba-zeh, or is it zeh la-zeh? (Parashat Behar Bechukotai)

Torah from Around the World #272

By Rabbi Melanie Aron,
Congregation Shir Hadash,
Los Gatos California

“All Jews are responsible for each other”

It’s a phrase you’ll hear often in the Jewish world, but it means a lot more than just a slogan for fundraising or speeches. Its roots are deep in the halachic tradition, with the concept of “areivut” originating in a discussion of a verse from this week’s Torah portion. When understood in some ways, this concept is incompatible with the stress on autonomy and individualism in modern progressive Judaism, but understood differently it is the key to our raison d’etre as a World Union.

In the midst of the terrible curses found in the second half of this week’s combined Torah portion, Behar Bechukotai, we find the words, “vekashlu ish be-achiv” (Leviticus 26: 37), literally “a man will stumble over his brother.” The Talmudic discussion of this verse (Babylonian Talmud Shevuot 39a) explains that this means that he will stumble, “be-avon achiv”, that is because of the sin of his fellow Jew. This is “areivut” the idea that one Jew is responsible because of the sins of another Jew.

Reuben M. Rudman in an article called “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-Zeh” in “Tradition”, a publication of the Rabbinical Council of America, (2009) suggests that the Biblical example of this sort of “areivut” is Judah who promises his father Jacob that he will take responsibility for Benjamin. This is not just bringing him back home, like a lost object, but rather that he “has accepted responsibility for Benjamin’s sins and will accept upon himself any heavenly decree that may put Benjamin in danger” (Page 36).

Rudman goes on to explain that actually this phrase occurs in two forms-Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh and Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh LaZeh. By looking at a machloket, or disagreement, (Babylonian Talmud Sota 37a) he identifies Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehudah with two different interpretations which he attaches to the two different versions of this saying. He bases this in part on the two different possible roots for the words areivim. One is from the root to guarantee; then the areiv is the one who guarantees a loan, who promises to pay if you are not able to do so. But a second derivation is possible from an understanding of this verb as meaning to mix together, as when different types of food are mixed together in a ta’arovet.

Rabbi Shimon, in the version of “zeh la zeh”, holds that each individual is a separate unit, who is responsible for other members of the klal, the whole, like the guarantor of a loan. But Rabbi Yehudah, holds that it is “zeh ba zeh”, implying that all Jews are mixed together to form a single entity known as Klal Yisrael, and thus share a common destiny. As modern Jews the first interpretation is problematic. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky writes in his book Jewish Living in the section concerning “Reform Judaism and the Jewish Community”: “The suggestion that it is the business of every Jew to insure that other Jews perform the mitzvoth offends our most deeply held beliefs in the right to privacy and the autonomy of the individual,” (page 282). This is kefiah datit, the imposition of religion, which is such a burden on those living in Israel, and which our Movement struggles against.

For us as Progressive Jews, Rabbi Washofsky says, the appropriate stress is on all Jews sharing a common religious destiny and recognizing that we need each other.

We live today in a time of intense individualism. Not only do we bowl alone, but we listen to our own playlist of music and read our own individualized sms newsfeeds. This intense individualism can lead us to forget that we are part of a larger community. Yet the weight of Jewish tradition points towards seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole, as we saw throughout this week’s parshah, where we note that both the blessings and the curses are addressed in the plural form.

Our tradition expresses this in a simple story. We read (Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 11):

“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.”

The structure of the World Union for Progressive Judaism is a response to our recognition that as Jews, we share a common destiny and should be conscious of our responsibility to care for one another. If one of us in trouble, we must all join together to repair the hole.

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