Collective Responsibility

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh, (all of Israel are held responsible for one another) is an important tenet in Talmud, one of the pillars of the foundations of our Jewish nation.  I was first introduced to it when I was six years old.

It happened one year when my father took me along with him to synagogue on Yom Kippur.  I had just acquired my reading skill and I was proud that I could read the prayers on this very sacred and awe inspiring day.  One of the prayers associated with this day is the Ashamnu (we have been guilty) confession.  The prayer lists in alphabetical order all possible sins and wrongdoings one can commit, transgressions for which we are asking God to forgive us.

For the benefit of those who are not well versed or familiar with the Hebrew language, here is another brief lesson to try and help make the meaning of this prayer clearer and more significant.  In Hebrew the suffix “nu” at the end of a verb is used to indicate “we.”

One can only imagine my surprised look as I stared at my father after reading these words.  “But Dad,” I said to him, in a naïve childish manner, “I have not committed all these sins, why do I have to ask for their forgiveness?”

My father caressed me with his eyes, patted my head and answered, “That, my child, is part of what being Jewish is all about.  You are part of Am Yisrael. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh. We have collective responsibility for each other, one we assumed upon ourselves when we accepted God’s Covenant at Arvot Moav before we entered Eretz Yisrael after we had left Egypt.  That Covenant,” my father explained to me, “demanded that each member of Am Yisrael would commit to a collective responsibility and would see to it that their friends  would also maintain their commitment.  You may not have committed all these sins,” he tried to reassure me, “but even if one Jew did commit them, it is our responsibility to ask for their forgiveness because we are responsible for each other.”  I felt proud, so proud.  To be charged with such an important task made realize, already then, how forged and cemented my fate is with the fate of my people.

“There are a couple of other lessons that this prayer teaches us,” my father continued his lecture about the important message of the Ashamnu prayer as we made our way back home from the synagogue.  “The first is that one cannot repent until after one has committed the crime and after one recognizes and acknowledges that he or she has erred. In other words, one cannot ask forgiveness for a crime one has not committed.”  I recalled that the prayer was written in the past tense. The transgressions listed were conjugated in the past tense.

“There is second and just as important a lesson to this prayer,” my father went on as he was holding my tiny hand in his. “The Talmud teaches us that one who shames (makes white להלבין פנים) the face of his fellow has no share in the world to come.  We have to be careful not to embarrass our fellow publicly. And that is another reason why we use the word ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in this prayer. We want to avoid shaming those among us those who might have indeed erred and committed one of these transgressions.”

That lesson still resonates with me.  All I ask is, if a Jewish girl was able to master it at the tender age of six, why cannot SOME of our Jewish Israeli leaders and SOME of our rabbis master it at their advanced age?  Why can they not understand that collective responsibility for any transgression can only be taken AFTER it was committed and not one second before?

About the Author
Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks is an English teacher and a pro Israel advocate. She lives in Israel and has recently published her first novel, "On A Wing From The Holy Land."