“Shin-Gimmel Syndrome” is the Israeli expression referring to the blaming of systemic failure on the mistakes of the lowly guard, the shin-gimmel. The story of Achan, as told in Yehoshua, chapter 7, and embellished by the Midrash, is a fascinating  treatment of the complicated interplay between collective responsibility and individual accountability in cases like this.

The first thing the text makes clear, when read carefully, is that this is not just Achan’s sin. “The Jewish people” are implicated before Achan is singled out, and God gets angry, and punishes, the Jewish people. When Yehoshua brazenly complains to God about their losses in battle, God repeats that the people have sinned, without singling anyone out. Before the particular sinner can be identified, the process of the lottery drives home the point that society is to blame at every level, in concentric circles of increasing responsibility.

The Midrash aims its own critical gaze at someone who wasn’t included in the lottery, the very top of the pyramid. God’s first words to Yehoshua, ‘kum lach’, ‘go rise up’, are understood as criticism. Yehoshua had not gone up, he had not himself led the people into battle as he had previously done, as he was meant to do. After only one victory, Yehoshua had become disconnected from the people.

Another Midrash locates this disconnect even earlier, in Yehoshua’s impossible expectation, independent of God’s command, that the people dedicate all the spoils of the battle of Jericho to God. (We’ll explore this sin more in chapter 8.)

But when he is asked to, Achan takes full responsibility for his sin. He doesn’t try to excuse his own behavior by pointing to mitigating circumstances, to the other forces at play and the others players responsible. Again, the Midrash amplifies the point, describing a scene in which Achan’s tribesmen from Yehuda prepare, or even begin, a war to defend the honor of their tribe from the accusations of Yehoshua from the rival tribe of Ephraim. By owning up to his crime, Achan offers himself as the scapegoat for the people’s first loss, in order to prevent further bloodshed, and thus becomes a tragic model of Teshuva.

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