Parashat Naso: Our Collective Responsibility
The Torah in Parashat Naso (5:5-8) discusses the case of a person who stole and then took an oath falsely denying his crime. After he confesses his sin and repents, he must pay the victim the principal that he stole plus a 20 percent penalty, and, in addition, he must bring a sacrifice.
If we look carefully at the text, we will notice something strange about the syntax. Throughout the discussion of this law, the Torah uses the singular form: "If a man or woman commits any sin of man…and that soul bears guilt…he shall return what he is guilty of…and give it to whom he wronged…" In one instance, however, the Torah suddenly and surprisingly shifts to the plural form – in speaking of the thief’s repentance: "They shall confess the iniquity which they committed" (5:7). The Torah then immediately reverts back to the singular form: "he shall return what he is guilty of…" What is the reason for this shift?
Rav Chaim Zeitchik (1906-1989) explained that when a person commits a sin, there are many "accomplices," many individuals who, unknowingly, played a role in facilitating the wrongdoing. In the case of theft, for example, there may have been people who were in a position to offer the thief the financial assistance he needed, or help him find a job, such that he would not have resorted to theft. It goes without saying that the criminal himself bears full responsibility for his decision to steal; financial struggles are not an excuse for misconduct. Nevertheless, those who could have alleviated his struggles are partly responsible for the unfortunate outcome. In some instances, a thief’s family bears some degree of blame, for imposing upon him pressure to earn more money, by demanding a higher material standard or complaining that they do not enjoy the same luxuries as their neighbors. These demands and complaints have a considerable psychological effect, and could lead the head of the household to resort to unethical behavior in order to obtain the money his family wants. More broadly, a community or society bears some guilt for setting the bar too high, for turning luxuries into necessities, to the point where some people feel almost compelled to steal or cheat their way to wealth. Again, the pressure imposed by the society does not in any way absolve the criminal of guilt. But it means that on some level, all of society bears a certain degree of culpability, by having created an environment that drives people to take extreme measures to increase their wealth.
Likewise, we all bear some degree of responsibility for people’s spiritual failures. Each and every one of us contributes to the creation of the environment in which we, our community, and our society live. By dedicating ourselves to Torah learning and Misva observance, we not only help ourselves, but also help make our environment more oriented towards holiness, which naturally impacts the people around us. Conversely, if we neglect or underemphasize Torah and Misvot, we help create an environment of religious apathy, which has the effect of lowering other people’s standards. We then bear a degree of guilt for other people’s misdeeds.
For this reason, Rav Zeitchik explains, the Torah says that when an individual sins, "Ve’hidvadu Et Avonam Asher Asu" – everyone must confess their wrongdoing. Although the sinner bears full accountability for his actions, we all share some level of responsibility. And so when an individual fails, and certainly when many individuals fail, we must also confess and repent for our role in facilitating this unfortunate situation.
The way we conduct ourselves has a profound, albeit indirect, impact upon the people around us, and even upon society as a whole. Everything we do and say, and the way we live our lives, helps determine the accepted standards. We must recognize the immense responsibility we have not only to ourselves and our families, but to our society, and conduct ourselves accordingly, so we can do our share in maintaining proper standards of Torah observance throughout our community and throughout Am Yisrael.