Steve Rodan

It’s About All of Us

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel. your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers. that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day. in order to establish you this day as His people, and that He will be your God, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. [Deuteronomy. 29:9-12]

Here’s a question: Dear Uncle Joe has reached the end: He summons his wife, children, grandchildren, maybe a favorite nephew or two. And Joe, or his lawyer, reads the will.

That makes sense. All of these people are part of Joe’s family and they’re all expecting something.

Now, try this: Joe calls his family as well as Chauncey the gardener, Lionel, the grocery boy Lionel, Clio, his hairdresser Pilar, his maid, and don’t forget Alex the masseur. What do these people have to do with the family? At best, they’re just hired help.

Not in the Torah: When you live in the Jewish nation, you are responsible for their laws of G-d — even if you’re not Jewish.

That’s what the Israelites learned on the last day of Moses’ life — collective responsibility. More than 3,000 years after Moses died, this notion is being examined in Western literature. The concept is seen as vital for government, corporations and political movements. Still, philosophers and educators remain with the same question: Can a group be held responsible for its moral choices? Can the German nation be held responsible for Hitler? After all, he was elected.

Is it possible for groups, as distinct from their members, to be morally blameworthy for bringing about harm? to be guilty as moral agents? [1]

The Torah sees nations, particularly the Israelites, as being responsible for the actions of individuals. The sin of the Golden Calf was committed by only a small group. The sin of Baal Peor, an idol worshipped by defecation, was done by the so-called Mixed Multitude rather than the Children of Israel. And yet G-d punished the nation as a whole because its leaders could have prevented these violations. The priesthood was taken from the first-born and transferred to the Levites. The nation lost the opportunity to enter the Land of Canaan within months of leaving Egypt, and instead wandered the desert for nearly 40 years.

Now, as the Israelites prepared to cross the Jordan River, Moses set a new bar. From now on, every person in Israel is responsible for his brother. It is not enough that the individual maintain piety. He must also be concerned of others — regardless of their station in life. That includes gentiles who live among the Jews. While they are not ordered to observe most of the 613 commandments, they are forbidden from violating the Torah in public. In private, they can treat the Sabbath as any other day. Outside their home, they must observe the Day of Rest.

Here’s how the Talmud in tractate Shabbat puts it: ” Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if he can prevent the people of his city, he is responsible for the sins of his city; if the whole world, he is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” [2]

The Torah does not require a Jew to intrude in the private life of his neighbor. Unlike the Christians during the Inquisition, Jews are not commanded to enter strange homes or interrogate people regarding their level of observance. But they are expected to try to stop public violations of the Torah, whether the desecration of the Sabbath or the sale of non-kosher food.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen Kagan spanned two worlds. He was born in Zhetel, today Belarus, in 1838. Although he was regarded as a genius in Torah, he refused to accept a pulpit and instead worked with his wife in a small grocery story in Vilna. He spent his days learning and teaching Torah to the common folk. He urged people to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah.

After World War I, the shtetl in Eastern Europe came to an end. Young Jews said good riddance to Czarist Russia and embraced the independence of Poland. Publishing houses were printing the classics in Yiddish while others adopted Polish. Many left the yeshiva and synagogue for the university, cabaret and media.

By this time, Rabbi Kagan, known by his work Chafetz Chaim, was a very old man. He regarded the abandonment of Judaism for gentile culture as dangerous for the more than three million Jews in Poland. He was especially worried over the arrogance of the new generation.

“In past generations, the sinners were somewhat ashamed and were required to operate in secret and seek reasons for their behavior. But now, it is not enough that they are no longer ashamed, rather the opposite: They are proud and flaunt their actions against the Torah…” [3]

In this new world, the Chafetz Chaim said, the secular care nothing for the Jewish nation. They justify their sins by identifying with other groups. “I am not a murderer,” the Jew might say. “I am a communist and communism befits me.” The adoption of foreign ideologies, the rabbi said, is worse than any simple departure from Judaism.

In his last years, the Chafetz Chaim saw disaster on the horizon. In 1930, three years before Hitler, the sage predicted World War II and the decimation of the Jews in Europe. “Twelve million was child’s play,” he said, referring to the death toll of World War I. “Only in another 10 years will the thing really begin.” [4] After Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, the Chafetz Chaim warned that there would be one refuge left for the Jew — Mount Zion in the Land of Israel. In September of that year, he died at age 95.

Nearly 150 years before the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar was struggling with the same question: Why did Moses impose collective responsibility on the Israelites? Wasn’t it difficult enough for the individual Jew to observe the Torah? Rabbi Ibn Attar, who wandered North Africa to teach Torah, explains that unless a Jew cares for another — whether physically or spiritually — the fabric of society will unravel. Observance will decline until much or most of the nation no longer obeys G-d’s word.

“And what collective responsibility does is to pay attention to the sinner, regardless of the gravity of his sin. And the Chosen People will be established to teach that every act of G-d is solely meant for our good and to sustain us.” [5]


1. “Collective Responsibility.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. December 2022.

2. Tractate Shabbat. 54B

3. Explanations of the Chofetz Chaim of the Torah. Page 750. Yisrael Braunstein. 5767

4. ibid. Page 88

5. Or Hachayim on the Torah. Part 2. Page 429

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.