The Bible notes several cases when various folks challenge the Hebrew idea of collective responsibility, even as criticism is leveled at those seeking to or those who did dodge it.
D’vora, for instance, who led the Israelite army to victory against the Canaanites at Mt. Tabor, does not mince words from those tribes who failed at living up to this value of equality in sharing the people’s responsibility, for not the whole nation of Israel had joined battle alongside their brethren. Why, this value teaches you that there are things in life that are greater than one’s individual level of comfort or narrow interests.
Thus Mordechai advises Esther to conquer her initial reluctance to see the king and beseech him on behalf of her targeted-for-destruction people, lest he might kill her if she appeared uninvited before his majesty. The Jewish queen “bites the bullet,” and the rest is history.
This Shabbat (Saturday) in all synagogues worldwide we read in the Torah about Moses’ evident concern that the two tribes of Reuben and Gad did not want to cross the Jordan River and into the Promised Land because they found on the eastern bank of the river adequate pasture for their many flocks. Moses’ anger at these tribes that initially seemed disinterested in joining the other 10 tribes in future battles was thusly expressed: “Shall your brethren go to war , and shall you sit here”(Numbers32:6)?
Jewish tradition vehemently opposes the idea that when sailing a boat with other people on board, one would be at liberty to drill a hole under “his” seat so water would inundate only his place… One cannot hide behind a selfishly imposed isolationism.
Why, didn’t President Lincoln understand this principle when objecting to secession and go into a civil war to insist on one and united nation? Similarly, may we opt out of donating our vital organs, let alone blood, though if we needed such donations that would be all “swell”? Indeed, may we ignore the constant need for donations of food for the needy in our town just because we currently do not need any such donations?
We are responsible for one another and our selfish actions of avoiding the communal needs does affect others. Indeed, the tribes of Reuben and Gad got Moses’ point and committed themselves to the national effort in Canaan, the land of Israel; the Torah reading on this Shabbat lays the ground for the evolution of this vital Israelite value.