rabbinic liturgy, in contrast, does not restrict
the definition of sin in this manner. Rather, we
can understand its collective “we have sinned”
as encompassing not merely collective responsibility, but collective agency or intention as
well. Thus, to expand on Heschel’s statement,
the liturgy holds that all are responsible even
when “no one” is guilty — that is, where sin
cannot be assigned to a specific individual or
The collective “we” of the rabbinic liturgy
may also have roots in biblical conceptions, ex-
emplified by the declaration that “Israel has
sinned” (Joshua, 7: 11). In the rabbinic concep-
tion of the community of Israel serving God
through Torah, departures from such duties —
i.e., “sin” — can thus occur in both individual
and collective forms. Accordingly, actions that
would be sinful if committed for the sake of in-
dividual desires become no less sinful when
committed for the sake of the collective, when
responding, as it were, to the urgings of the col-
lective yetzer hara. Each member of Israel
therefore bears responsibility not only for sins
committed in his or her own name, and not
only for sins committed in the name of other
individual members of Israel, but also for sins
committed in the name of Israel as a whole.
people as our neighbors and fellow travelers
on this earth.
Similarly, some commentators see the
Torah’s command, “Do not hate your brother
in your heart,” (Leviticus 19: 17) as applying
only to the Jewish family. In today’s world,
many of us understand that the sacred call is to
embrace every member of the human family as
our own kin. Thus, the Torah expressly forbids
the kind of hatred, prejudice, and racism that
too often enliven the punitive voices in the immigration debate.
Surely, good people can and will disagree
about how to translate the Torah’s broad ethical
principles into wise contemporary public policy.
Yet for me, the core truth of Jewish teaching is
Ethics continued from page 24
clear, as articulated in this remarkable midrash:
God gathered the dust [of the first
human] from the four corners of the
world — red, black, white, and green.
Red is for the blood; black is for the innards; and green is for the body. Why
from the four corners of the earth? So
that if one comes from the East to the
West as he nears the end of his life, it
will not be said to him, “This land is
not the dust of your body; it’s of mine.
Go back to where you were created.”
Rather, every place that a person
walks, from there he was created and
from there he will return. (Yalkut
Shimoni, Genesis 1: 13)
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