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One for All and All for One

The entire fifth and final book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, was said by Moshe just prior to his death. After completing the 30-day mourning period for Moshe, the entire nation under the leadership of Joshua would cross over the Jordan completing God’s divine plan. That plan was and still is for the nation of Israel to live in the land of Israel. 

Sefer Devarim introduces us to many mitzvot not previously mentioned in any of the books of the Chumash. The command to appoint judges and create a broad legal system, to appoint a king, laws of marriage and, when necessary, how to properly terminate a marriage, are but a few examples. Some commands mentioned in this portion, however, are repeats but with a significant change in language. One such example is the command to return lost objects. Here the Torah switches from the word “your enemy” used earlier in Parshat Mishpatim, to “your brother.” 

The switch in language from “your enemy” to “your brother,” regarding the mitzvah to return lost objects is significant. It is indicative of a new status, “brotherhood,” that is about to devolve onto the people. The term “enemy” is used earlier to prod us toward personal perfection. Even if the object belongs to someone we hate, we must carry out the mitzvah nonetheless. The Torah is directing us not to act on petty emotions. It chooses a situation we all identify with and relate to.

Every mitzvah had its own time for being given over to the nation and recorded for all posterity. The timeliness of the mitzvot enumerated in Sefer Devarim were crucial to the setting up, establishment and continual smooth running of the nation of Israel in its own land. This process did not primarily involve what we consider the “religious” domain or the sacrificial service. Rather, it relates almost exclusively to mitzvot that promote the smooth running of the society and social harmony. It was essential, then, that the laws governing the interactions between the people be given at this juncture, right before taking possession of their ancestral homeland.

In this regard the legal principle of כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, “all of Israel is responsible one to the other,” came to existence. Thus, the Torah switches the expression from “enemy” to “brother.” The Torah in Sefer Devarim now commands the mitzvah of tzedakah for the first time. Many of the forms charity takes, such as not to harvest an entire field of crops or to not go back and pick up fallen bundles of grain but leave them and a corner of the field for the poor, are mentioned this week in Ki Teitzei. 

But entering the land of Israel brought with it a new responsibility of ביו אדם לחבירו, “between a man and his fellow.” This added dimension to mitzvot created the nation. Judaism was not just to be millions of individuals all doing the same things. Rather, Judaism now embraced a national commitment to a new way of life. This new concept of “brotherhood” not only accounts for the many new social commands found in Sefer Devarim and our parasha, like the creation of a sophisticated court system or the requirement to appoint a king; we must now provide for the wellbeing of each individual in the framework of nationhood, עם ישראל . This requirement is exemplified by the mitzvah of returning lost objects or the proper fulfilling of tzedaka in all its manifestations. There is perhaps no greater demonstration of this principle than the fundamental law that emerges from this week’s Torah portion. כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, creates a legal permit for one person to say a blessing or perform certain mitzvot on behalf of others, both individually and as a group.

As we approach the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, let us renew our commitment to improving our interactions with our fellow Jews. Most of the sins we specifically mention in the Yom Kippur confessional relate to how we treat others. Now, in the month of Elul, is the time to relate to our fellow Jews as brother, close family members. It is time to increase our charitable contributions to the various organizations established in our community that assist, support and provide for the welfare of our fellow Jews. In this way, not only are we involved with our own personal perfection but we are engaged in mitzvot on an even higher philosophical realm. Our actions then merge with the will of God. It is His plan and design that the nation of Israel shall always exist.

May Hashem continue His protecting care over the nation of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan