Elad Eshel
Thinking Through Torah

Toxic Individuality

We pride ourselves on our individualism. Human rights, personal freedom, despise for bias based on group identity (ethnicity, religion, etc.) – these are the core tenants of the societies in which we live. These are values that we are right to treasure, as they have brought about an age of prosperity and human welfare never seen before in history. Coming from this perspective, however, it can be challenging when learning some sections of the Torah that seem to condone collective punishment (e.g. Devarim 11:11-21 and 13:13-19)  Indeed, the Torah itself surely must find this an anathema, as we are warned many times against punishing one for the sin of another (e.g. Yechezkel 18:20).

So how can we resolve this contradiction?

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Noach is the only person to be described as a Tzadik (righteous) by the Torah itself. At the same time, he is constantly compared to the rest of his generation, as the parsha famously opens “Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” Whist the midrash focuses on this juxtaposition either to emphasise or to qualify his righteousness, other commentaries focus on a different element of his relationship with his society. Why was Noach the only one? We can understand that at the beginning of his journey, he alone was faithful to Hashem. But after 120 years of building the ark, did he not gain even one single follower? Could he not reach out and grow his sphere of influence to convince another to join him on the ark?

Was Noach under any formal obligation or duty to help save his fellow? Not that we know of. But was it his moral duty to do what he could to mend the evils of his society? Absolutely. And though all his deeds may have been perfectly righteous, he did not live up to Hashem’s expectations of moral leadership.

* * *

This could be the key to resolving our contradiction. For a court or a government to judge one person based on the actions of another – this is surely unjust. But does this also mean that we excuse the individual of their moral responsibility for the culture and character of the society in which they live? Certainly not.

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, explains it like this: when a society says that something is not allowed or forbidden, it doesn’t always mean the same thing. There are things that are wrong, but that people still do – and things that are simply ‘not done’.

Let me explain. Imagine you are sitting around the Shabbat table with some friends, and at one point, Reuven says something about Shimon that insults him. If Shimon were to respond to this insult by lashing out violently – we would find this shocking and unacceptable and would surely make this know to him. This is not how we behave in our society, not something that we tolerate.

And yet, if Shimon responded instead by telling over lashon hara at the Shabbat table the very next week about Reuven, though we all agree this is wrong, no one would be in uproar about it.

Rav Moshe explains, though in this case we did not speak the lashon hara ourselves, we bear responsibility for making it acceptable in our culture. Ultimately, what is considered beyond the pale, ‘not done’ – as opposed to being wrong, but still accepted – is up to each and every one of us.

* * *

This war with Hamas will be long and costly – not just to Israel, but to the civilians in Gaza as well. Is this fair? Is this just? What responsibility do these innocent people bear, after all? Indeed, they are not combatants, and will not be targeted in the IDF’s offense, and we are thankful and proud of the strong moral backbone of our army. But the residents of Gaza cannot wipe their hands clean of the atrocities that started this war. We at not just at war with Hamas, but with a culture that accepts such cruelty, tolerates such violence. They may not have taken lives with their own hands, but they glorified those who did. They may have not fired any rockets, but they celebrated the havoc they caused. They may have thought it was wrong, but they let it happen.

* * *

In a similar sense, all of Am Yisrael is responsible for the outcome of this war. Over the past year, across the spectrum of Am Yisrael, we began to act like Noach. We were satisfied that we ourselves were righteous, but we stopped looking at the rest of the nation like they were our responsibility. We shut each other out, seeking safety in our own echo chambers. We forsook this fundamental duty to bridge the gap, to reach out, to create open spheres of influence that would encourage change, growth and peace. At this time, when war has brought us together again, we must reflect on how we can re-open channels of communication, re-instil a broad sense of communal responsibility, and reignite the mantra of ‘kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh’.

About the Author
Elad, together with is family is the Bnei Akiva/MIzrachi Shaliach in Manchester, UK. He has smicha from World MIzrachi, and an undergrad in Law and Psychology for Hebrew U.
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