In the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 3:1), the Rambam writes that we are judged by God not only as individuals but collectively as well. Countries are to be judged too, their collective sins weighed against their merits. At first glance, such a thing does not appear to be fair, for what country in the world can claim to be truly righteous? If so, some sort of collective teshuvah is our only option, yet the Rambam gives us little guidance on how this is to take place and we are left wondering if and how a country is supposed to repent and repair its wrongs.
On the one hand, we know such a thing is possible for the Book of Jonah makes this clear. Despite his great reluctance, Jonah eventually delivers his prophecy that in “Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). Unlike the Jewish people, who constantly hear the warnings of the prophets and yet refuse the change their ways, “The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:5). If we were to assume their actions only to be superficial, a performance intended to persuade God not to destroy them, we are told that their teshuva is in fact real and not a deception: “God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:10).
The collective teshuvah described in the Book of Jonah is so rare as to perhaps be considered only a fairy tale. The reason for this is simple and is well captured by the title of Reinhold Niebuhr’s important work: Moral Man and Immoral Society. As individuals we are have the ability to take responsibility for our actions and to check our worse impulses but for groups, this is much harder if not impossible.
In every human group there is less reason to guide and check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism, than the individuals who compose the group reveal in their personal relationships (Moral Man and Immoral Society).
An individual can be wise and selfless but groups are often condemned only to pursue their collective self-interest regardless of the costs, and as a result, racism and oppression is the norm. Given this reality, how then can collective teshuvah take place? What allows for a society to change, for a country to better itself? It’s a tall order, and from the perspective of the lone individual, one can feel a profound sense of powerless. Too often our efforts to make real change and bring about a collective sense of accountability are only met with brutal opposition by these who seek to maintain the status quo.
Will Herberg, a Jewish thinker greatly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, offers us a powerful way to think about social change, one that draws upon a deep appreciation of the Jewish tradition combined with the insight of a sharp political thinker. He implores us not to despair when it appears our actions to bring about change do not appear to have a broader impact. Teshuvah is always to some extent dependent on God, but it can only be made manifest through the blood, sweat, and tears of real human beings. He writes:
But repentance for classes, nations, and cultures is no more possible without divine grace than it is for individuals. The resources of divine grace in history are generally mediated through the works of God-fearing men, whose devoted service to their fellows is never without effect. The prophet and saint, the social reformer, the man genuinely concerned with the welfare of his neighbor, are the great assets of society. They are a leaven that works from within and helps dissolve the rigid structures of sinful self-interest that burden mankind from age to age. What they accomplish is not always visible on the surface, but it constitutes a fund, a treasure upon which their own subsequent generations may draw (Judaism and Modern Man, 224).
The reason for this, he explains, is because:
Every act of justice and lovingkindness, every action in which the self is transcended for what is genuinely (though perhaps not completely) beyond the self, enters into the stream of history as a power in its own right. In contrast to the effect of sin, the good that men do helps to keep open and even to extend the areas of freedom available in social life. Humanitarian effort and social reform, sacrificial service to others, the struggle against injustice and oppression wherever they show themselves, do not merely relieve the distress of those immediately affects; they serve also to enlarge the possibilities of life for other men and other generations” (Judaism and Modern Man, 219).
Every selfless act dedicated to bringing more justice and righteousness into the world creates a space, if only a small one, that expands the possibility of what our collective lives can look like. While we may not always see the impact of our actions in the short term, we must never underestimate that their very existence can be drawn upon by those who come after us to imagine and work towards a better world. If such a notion sounds fantastical, we have to look no farther than the Jewish tradition to realize just how true it is. How often throughout history have Jews turned to the examples of the avot (patriarchs) and imahot (matriarchs) to find inspiration in a world filled with darkness? It is fair to assume that Avraham could not possibly have imagined the impact his actions would have on countless others when he welcomed three strangers to his tent or argued with God on behalf of the residents of Sedom. In the moment neither action produced earth shattering results, yet there is no question that in the centuries that followed, Abraham’s example provided courage and strength to the countless individuals whose collective efforts have changed the world.
In reflecting on the social change that took place in America during the 30s and 40s that led to the creation of the New Deal and a more egalitarian society, Herberg writes:
And in our own country, can we account for the astonishing development of social welfare legislation in the course of the past fifteen years with mentioning the decades of patient agitation on the part of the dedicated men and women who first brought an understanding of social responsibility to the public mind? The ancient rabbinical doctrine of “the merits of the fathers” (zechut abot), according to which the good deeds of men in the past constitute a resource of redemption for our own time, may thus be seen to possess a far greater relevance to social reality than has usually been allowed (Judaism and Modern Man, 219).
For a country to do teshuvah, it must turn to its past, its patriarchs and matriarchs, to learn from their example and draw upon their merits to find the courage necessary to bring about real change. These need not be individuals from thousands or even hundreds of years ago, for the merits of those who come before us can be felt in every generation. It might be a parent, a grandparent, a teacher or a neighbor. Anyone whose example showed us the possibility of a better world. And perhaps most importantly, we must recognize that we too can join them. The sacrifices we make to build a more just society are never in vain even if we ourselves never see the results. They simply become added to zechut avot, the merits of our ancestors, to serve as a “resource of redemption” for those to come.
The rabbis teach us that the gates of teshuvah are never closed. This is a message we must internalize now more than ever.