One for All and All for One
The entire fifth and final book of the Torah, ספר דברים, Sefer Devarim, was a speech by Moshe to the entire nation 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 River and enter Canaan, completing God’s divine plan for the Jewish people. 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 other books of the Torah. Some of these commands include conduct consider today to be enlightened such as how to wage war, the rules of military engagement. Marriage and when necessary, how to properly terminate a marriage are among the enumerated mitzvot. Other commands mentioned in our portion are repeats recorded elsewhere but with a distinctive change in language. One such example is the command to return lost objects. Here the Torah switches expressions from “returning your enemy’s lost object” used earlier in Parshat Mishpatim, to “returning your brother’s lost object.”
This 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 that is about to devolve on the Jewish people. The term “enemy” is used earlier by the Torah to prod us toward personal perfection. Even if the object belongs to someone we hate, we must nonetheless carry out the mitzvah precisely and return their lost object forthrightly. Through the earlier formulation of the command, the Torah is directing us not to act based upon petty emotions such as who we consider a friend or an enemy. The Torah chooses that description because that is an attitude we all identify with and fall prey to; it is one we must work hard to overcome and never base our actions on .
It is instructive to know that every mitzvah had its own time for transmission to the nation and its own place to be recorded for posterity in the Torah. The timeliness of the mitzvot enumerated in the Sefer Devarim were crucial to setting up and establishing the governance of the nation of Israel in its own land. This process did not primarily involve what we consider the “religious” domain. Rather, it related almost exclusively to mitzvot that produce its smooth-running society while promoting social harmony. It was essential, then, that the laws governing the interactions between the people be given now, right before taking possession of their ancestral homeland.
Thus, the legal principle of כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, “all of Israel is responsible for one another,” created the new legal status of “brotherhood” which emerged at this time. Thus, the Torah switches its expression to “your brother” regarding the mitzvot of returning lost objects and charging or paying interest on a loan. In Sefer Devarim, the mitzvah of tzedakah is mentioned for the first time. Leaving a corner of a field unharvested for the poor and leaving as well fallen bundles of grain for the poor are mentioned now in Moshe’s final speech.
Entering the land of Israel would bring with it a new dimension of ביו אדם לחבירו, “relations between a man and his fellow.” This added dimension to mitzvot created the status of “nation” to the Jewish people and Moshe had to apprise them of this new legal status before he died. 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.
There is perhaps no greater demonstration of the principle of collective responsibility and interconnectedness among Jews than a fundamental law that emerges from this week’s Torah portion. כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, creates the legal permit for one person to say a blessing or perform certain mitzvot on behalf of others, whether individually or 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, left, right, or center. Most of the sins we specifically mention in the Yom Kippur confessional relate to how we treat others. Now, the month of Elul, is the time to relate to our fellow Jews as “brothers,” and “sisters,” as close and beloved family members. It is time to look beyond our petty differences. It is time to increase our charitable contributions to organizations and institutions 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 a higher philosophic realm. Our actions then merge with the will, design and plan of God expressed throughout His Torah… the nation of Israel shall always exist.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan