Beyond the Bounds, Part II
Chapter 5, Mishna 21(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Anyone who brings the many towards merit -- a sin will not come about
through him. And anyone who brings the many to sin will not be given the
opportunity to repent. Moses merited and brought merit to the many. The
merit of the many was dependent upon him, as it is said, 'He did G-d's
righteousness and G-d's justice with Israel' (Deuteronomy 33:21). Jeroboam
ben (son of) Nevat sinned and brought the masses to sin. The sin of the many
was dependent upon him, as it is said, '...for the sins of Jeroboam which he
sinned and caused Israel to sin' (I Kings 15:30)."
Last week we discussed the concept and ramifications of bringing another
person to good or to evil. One who does so has created a powerful chain
reaction in the universe, so much so that G-d, so to speak, does not allow
him or her to veer from the path he has inspired in others. He has created
an irreversible force in this world, so much stronger and greater than he
that he himself can no longer stem its unstoppable tide. Neither can he --
nor will G-d -- undo the good or evil he has unleashed into this world.
Based on this we began discussing the Biblical concept that G-d rewards and
punishes the descendants of a person for his or her good or bad deeds
(Exodus 20:5-6). We explained that it is not that the son is rewarded or
punished for acts he did not do, but that the powerful force of good or evil
unleashed by the parents must be borne by the children. If parents impart to
their children proper religious and moral values, this will be the default
mindset the children will inherit, and they will begin life that much more
enriched. If, however, the children are raised with religious ignorance
and/or apathy, they will be forced to struggle uphill for years to overcome
the spiritual lethargy they have inherited, until slowly they begin to see
G-d and life with unblemished eyes.
(Practically speaking, it can take generations to uproot prejudice and the
like from a sinner's descendants -- take the American South as an example.
And often, the more vile and patently unjust the bigotry, the hardier and
more stubborn the weed. (I by the way leave anti-Semitism out of this. That
is a unique, G-d-ordained animal, which does not follow ordinary rules of
There is a deeper concept behind the idea of rewarding or punishing a
person's descendants. It is less related to the theme of our mishna but
provides us with an important insight into the workings of G-d's justice. It
is based upon Michtav Mai'Eliyahu, I:8-14, by R. Eliyahu Dessler, one of the
great Jewish thinkers of the mid-20th Century.
R. Dessler explains by illustration. Say two young men are brought before a
judge, both for petty theft. One comes from a stable, well-adjusted and
well-established home -- both biological parents, good income, high level of
education and standard of living, etc. His parents (or Sesame Street) taught
him sharing, cooperation and fair play. The other came from a broken and
dysfunctional home -- drugs, alcohol, unemployment, domestic abuse,
violence, etc. (Unfortunately, we need not stretch our imaginations too far
to imagine such an upbringing. According to recent statistics around 40% of
all American children are born out of wedlock -- not to mention the
exorbitant divorce rate.) What is the proper and fitting punishment for each
of these youths?
Well, there are two issues over here: individual accountability and
appropriate corrective measures. There is no question that the young man
with a deficient upbringing is less culpable for his sins: he did not know
better. He was never raised on personal integrity and good behavior, and had
few if any proper role models to follow. The well-raised child, however,
*should* have known better -- and in many ways bears more responsibility for
failing to follow the footsteps of his decent and well-meaning parents.
There is, however, a very different angle to this question -- and really the
critical one for the true judge (or True Judge) who wants not only to punish
but instruct and enlighten. A child of noble breeding who knows and sees
good manners and proper behavior -- though he doesn't practice them himself
-- is no stranger to that way of life. It is not entirely foreign to his
cognizance and life experiences. It may take only a small amount of
prodding, a bit of positive reinforcement, to guide him along the path he
sees clearly before him. Positive reinforcement rather than negative reproof
may for him be the most effective means of discipline. And even though it is
so typical that adolescents rebel in one way or the other, they do know
*what* they're rebelling against. And let's face it: the chutzpah and
stubbornness of youth aside, chances are that a few years later the apple
will not fall far from the tree.
The child, however, who never saw or knew good character traits, will have a
much tougher learning curve before he can adopt such traits himself. The
issue again is not so much punishment for his past. It is instruction for
the future. And sadly, as little as this youth knows better -- as little as
his "fault" it is, much more discipline and tough love will have to be
applied in order to lead him along the true and proper path of life. It will
be quite some time till he can venture that path alone.
King Solomon stated it forcefully and unsentimentally but accurately: "With
words the slave is not rebuked" (Proverbs 29:19). Without the blessing of a
healthy, stable upbringing, the results are often no short of disastrous --
with no easy means of repair after the fact.
G-d thus deals differently with the descendants of the righteous than those
of the wicked. If my forebears are righteous, I am far less removed from
their behavior -- regardless of my own personal failings. If, however, my
forefathers never knew righteousness themselves, I am that much further from
This, continues R. Dessler, provides us with an important insight into
another fundamental concept in Jewish thought -- G-d's preferential
treatment of the Jews. The Sages often make reference to that fact that
Israel has the special "merit of the forefathers" ("zechus avos"). We are
given preferential treatment simply because we are descended from Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob. This too is not because of ancient history -- that we
happen to have the good fortune of being the progeny of pious individuals
millennia ago. It is because those ancestors instilled certain good
qualities into the Jewish psyche -- qualities which, with only a little
prodding, G-d knows we can return to.
R. Dessler demonstrates this through the writings of an earlier scholar, R.
Chaim Volozhiner, of 18th-19th Century Lithuania. R. Volozhiner notes that
many good traits almost second nature to Jews today are in truth a legacy
from Abraham. Jews are patient and accepting in suffering just as Abraham
survived famine without complaint. They are willing to sacrifice for their
beliefs just as Abraham was willing to be thrown into a fiery furnace and to
sacrifice his own son. Jews have a innate and deep-seated attachment to the
Land of Israel just as Abraham abandoned his family and homeland, heeding a
Divine call to emigrate to G-d's special domain. And finally, Jews have
always been on the forefront of social causes, attempting -- in one way or
the other -- to improve the world around them, just as Abraham attempted to
intercede on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom.
Thus, G-d deals with Israel in many ways more mercifully and patiently than
other nations. Of course, G-d deals with every human being individually and
uniquely, but generally speaking, the nations of the world are not coaxed,
prodded and warned the way Israel is. G-d allowed the sins of many a great
empire to accumulate -- only to utterly obliterate them in the end,
preserving them as no more than fodder for later day archaeologists. But
Israel has always been and will always be different. G-d sees good
characteristics just beneath the surface of the Jewish psyche. He therefore
never fully ignores us. He warns us -- patiently but incessantly -- never
giving us rest until we realize that great potential He knows exists within
us. He knows that each and every one of us contains within him- or herself
that inbred spark of Jewishness -- which with sufficient fanning and stoking
will blaze into the flame of a true Jewish heart.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.