The ties that bind
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All the people of Israel are guarantors for one another
This famous dictum, one of the most famous sayings in Jewish life, is derived from this week’s Torah reading. The principle is derived by the Talmud from the Bible’s description of the Jewish people behaving sinfully: and “stumbling over one another”.
To this day, this declaration of our shared responsibility for each other is one of the most oft-quoted rabbinic statements – especially at fundraising events. So it comes as a surprise to learn that the phrase has actually been misquoted by the rabbis, and that the original Talmudic phrase is rather different.
The difference between the phrase quoted by the rabbis, and the one which appears in the Talmud, lies in a single letter – but one which actually has a significant impact on the meaning of the entire statement.
In the Talmud, the phrase concludes with not with the word “lazeh”, but with the word “bazeh”. The changed letter is significant, because the word “arevim” which comes before it actually has two different meanings. It can either mean “guarantors”, or else “to be mixed together”.
When used with the word lazeh, as quoted by the rabbis (see, for example, Rashi on Vayikra 26: 37), the sense of the sentence is:
“All the people of Israel are guarantors for each other”
When used with the word bazeh, as in the original quotation in the Talmud, the sense is different:
“All the souls of Israel are mixed together”
The two forms of the statement carry with them very different connotations. As used by the rabbis, the sentence speaks of a legal bond. It uses the term arevim in a sense which is very familiar to every Israeli homeowner (the word arevim is used in modern Hebrew to described the guarantors required by banks for mortgages). Every Jew, the rabbis wanted to emphasize, must know that he or she can be held responsible for the failings of every other Jew.
But the original Talmudic statement suggests something deeper – a spiritual or metaphysical connection between the souls of all the people of Israel. We are not simply responsible for each other, it seems to say, but on a profound level our lives and our destinies are ‘mixed up with each other’.
As different as the two readings are, they are connected at a fundamental level: the greater the degree of connectedness we feel for each other, the more we will be likely to act out of a sense of responsibility to each other.
The Midrash brings a striking parable to illustrate this sense of connection and shared responsibility:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: It can be compared to people on a boat. One took out a drill and began drilling a hole in the boat beneath his seat. The others said to him, “What are you doing?” He replied, “Is that any concern of yours? [I am not drilling a hole beneath your seat] but only under mine.” They said: “But you will sink the whole ship, and we will all drown.” (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus).
Of course, the connectedness between us does not only mean than the failures of one can lead to the downfall of all. To the contrary, Jewish tradition sees it as the secret of our survival and the protection of the weaker members of society. As another striking parable, brought by the Midrash, suggests:
It is the way of the world that if someone tries to break a bundle of reeds they cannot; but if the reeds are taken one by one even a child can break them. So it is with the people of Israel: they are only redeemed when they unite together. (Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim)
In others’ words
The sense that the Jewish people has a shared fate and a common responsibility has probably not been felt more strongly in the past generation, than at the time of the Six Day War of 1967. For Israel’s Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, this was the secret of Israel’s success:
“Our people stood the test because it was united, because at the fateful hour it was able to concentrate its efforts and act as one man.
“The people stood the test. Hundreds of thousands of young people and new immigrants, in big or little tasks, each according to his age and his abilities, proved that their roots in this country are eternal. It was shown that the spirit of the people flows from the spiritual revival of the State.
“We saw clearly that this is no mere ingathering of the exiles, but a new yet ancient nation, a united nation, which has been tempered in the furnace of one Israel, forged out of all our tribes and the remnants of scattered communities they, their sons and daughters. A nation has come into being which is ready for any effort or sacrifice in order to achieve its goals.
“The State of Israel has stood the test because it knew that it carried the hopes of the entire Jewish people. The unity of our people has been forged anew in these days. All the Diaspora communities were keenly conscious of their solidarity with the State of Israel, the heart of the Jewish people. Thousands of our people came forward to help. Hundreds of thousands, millions, are ready to give us all the assistance in their power. Even those who are unable to offer their aid have their hearts with us in our struggle. Just as our own country has attained a higher unity, so has the unity of the Jewish people been reinforced. Jerusalem has been joined together, and in its unity, as our sages said, it has made all Israel brethren.”
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Statement to the Knesset, June 12, 1967
On a lighter note
Not only Jews but also antisemites tend to see Jews as responsible for each others’ acts – as this joke reminds us:
A Jewish man walks into a bar and overhears two men arguing about the sinking of the Titanic. As he sits down he hears one of the men declare: “And it was a Jew that sank the Titanic!”
The Jewish man feels he has to speak up. “It wasn’t a Jew that sank the Titanic – an iceberg sank the Titanic.”
And the man replies: “Iceberg, Goldberg, you’re all the same…”