Ekev: Fists and Noses

A familiar maxim of American law is, “my right to swing my fist ends at the other fellow’s nose.”   In other words, the governing principle of American liberty means that I can do as I please (and what I do is nobody else’s business and his/hers none of mine) so long as we don’t actually hurt each other.  A related maxim is the “no duty of rescue” rule: with very few exceptions in only a few jurisdictions, one has no legal obligation to help another in an emergency, even if such help can be rendered without risk or inconvenience.  I can live my life and ignore the plight and interests of others (unless I actively or negligently harm or damage them). 

Conversely, familiar maxims of Judaism include, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh, “All Israel is responsible one for the other” (Talmud, Shavuot 39a); “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him” (Leviticus 19:17); You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16); “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20); and Cain’s insolent question to G-d, after having murdered his brother, Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), the implied answer being “Yes!”  In other words, the “business” of others is largely our business, too, and vice versa; nor do we have the right to ignore the plight of others, even if we did nothing to cause it.  

This week’s Torah portion includes the text of the “middle section” of the V’ahavta – “…וְהָיָה אִם ־שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל ־מִצְוֹתַי“--if you (plural) observe My commandments, then וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ [you will] gather in your (singular) new grain and your (singular) wine and your (singular) oil. (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) This clearly presents the issue of communal behavior upon individuals.  

Having inherited and valuing both of these traditions, I often struggle with the tension between them.   If I’m in a conversation and hear gossip, should I attempt to change the subject and later (privately) reproach the speaker?  If I see a parent jaywalk with a young child in hand, should I (go to the intersection, wait for the lights, then) follow and admonish them?  (If so, I'd be doing a lot of waiting for lights and chasing parents in Jerusalem). When I wait at an intersection in my car next to a haggard person seeking a hand-out, can I continue to stare straight ahead until the light changes?  Such questions arise continuously. How can we be guided regarding correct behavior?

Perhaps surprisingly, Judaism is itself conflicted.  Despite the Jewish maxims I cite above, I can also point to others that diminish or negate corporate responsibility.  The extremely important value of humility requires respecting others’ opinions and priorities, as well as care in asserting – inevitably egged on by one’s yetzer hara -- the propriety of one’s one view and behavior.  (However, humility can also mean asserting oneself strongly when necessary, as Moses -- the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3) -- did repeatedly).   Even though “All Israel is responsible for one another,” we are not equally responsible for everyone.  Our responsibilities vary, both in kind and in extent, to our spouse, parents, children, siblings, community members, the strangers among us, and those in distant places.   

Apparently, even G-d has difficult deciding whether to impute responsibility to one person for another’s behavior. In the “Ten Commandments,” G-d says that G-d will “visit the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”  (Exodus 20:5-6, Deuteronomy 5:9-10).  Corporate responsibility!  Similarly, “The Lord! The Lord! A G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7).   

This principle was gruesomely applied when Achan stole and buried loot he discovered during the battle for Ai. He then confessed, whereupon, his entire family was stoned to death for his sins.  (Joshua 7:24-25)  And yet, at Deuteronomy 24:16, we are told “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” No corporate responsibility!  Ezekiel Chapter 18 expounds this principle and its rationale.     

We could, but need not, throw up our hands and dismiss these different accounts and rules as useless contradictions.  Instead, we can see them as expressing important competing values.  I learned from Professor Marvin Sweeney that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is a “book in conversation with itself.”   I think this means, in part, that there is no single right answer, no “right thing to do,” that applies in every situation.  Rather, the important thing is to live continuously engaged in ancient and eternally relevant Jewish conversations, to keep these conversations going (in and for ourselves and future generations), so that we can both learn and teach from the gradual answers that emerge.   

In all sincerely, I wish us – individually and collectively -- “good luck with that!”  

Shabbat shalom.      

[1]This sentiment is most often attributed to Supreme Court Justice Oliver WendellHolmes, Jr. but there is no evidence to support this.  Researchers have instead traced it to various19th century political figures, such as Zachariah Chafee.  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3