Social Responsibility - Parshas Vayishlach 5766.
- Rabbi Yaakov Werblowsky
- Dec 9, 2005
The Rishonim take issue with the Rambam’s explanation on a number of points (see the Ramban’s commentary to this week’s Parsha), but one of the most striking explanations of the Rambam is brought in the Chiddushei HaRan (Sanhedrin 56b). He claims that the Rambam believes that generally, a non-Jew only receives the death penalty for actively transgressing a prohibition, not for passively failing to fulfill an obligation – with one exception. Not administering the requisite justice is a capital offense, as in our case of the people of Shechem, despite its being passive rather than active. The question, then, begs itself: why should this mitzvah break the rule?
Perhaps the answer lies in the phrase the Torah uses to describe the people of Shechem. After Yaakov’s sons ransack the city, the Torah, seemingly to explain their guilt, says, “asher timeu achosam” – [the people] who desecrated their sister. As some Achronim point out (see the Or Hachayim Hakadosh), the Torah refers to all the city’s inhabitants as the perpetrators of the horrific offense, even though it was presumably committed only by Shechem himself. One may suggest that, based on this pasuk, the Rambam concludes that a community which fails to judge and punish those who violate Hashem’s will is held accountable as if it had committed the heinous crimes itself, and it is punished accordingly.
The source for such a concept is a gemara in Shabbos (54b), which states that the cow of R. Elazar ben Azarya walked outside on Shabbos sporting a strap between its horns, which is considered carrying and is prohibited. The gemara clarifies that it was actually R. Elazar’s neighbor’s cow, not his own, but since he could have prevented the transgression and did not do so, the Mishnah attributes the sin to him. The gemara then goes on to state this as a general rule, that anyone who is in a position to prevent a family member, member of the community, or anyone in the world from transgressing and shirks this responsibility is liable for their transgressions. (We should note that the implication of Rashi there is that this only applies to other Jews, which would preclude the use of this gemara as a basis to explain the Rambam.)
An even more striking consequence of such inaction is mentioned by the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (4:1). There he maintains that one who is able to stop someone from heading or continuing down a sinful path and elects not to do so has committed one of the four sins which are so severe that Hashem does not allow him to do teshuva!
The message is quite clear. It is true that we are often not in a position to do anything about the wrongdoings we find around us in different settings. It is also true that we are not necessarily required to go out of our way to put ourselves in such positions. Nevertheless, there are situations where we can, reasonably, impact and correct the actions of others around us, especially since, as yeshiva students, we have been blessed with the chinuch that should make us more attuned to ratzon Hashem, the will of God. Because it is often uncomfortable to do so, it is easy for us to justify to ourselves the shirking of this responsibility. However, it is not a responsibility we can afford to ignore.
Einayim L'Torah Parshas Vayishlach 5766. By: Rabbi Yaakov Werblowsky
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