As part of his purification process, the metzora (someone with a skin condition described in the Torah and resulting in ritual impurity) would offer an animal sacrifice on the altar in the Temple.

In its sensitivity, the Torah takes into account the financial standing of the metzora: “But if he is poor and cannot afford [these sacrifices], he shall take one [male] lamb . . . and two turtledoves or two young doves, according to what he can afford.”1

Moreover, the Torah allows for another Jew to sponsor the metzora’s sacrifice.

And here is where things get interesting.

In his Laws of Atonement Requirements,2 Maimonides writes:

“When a rich man says, ‘I take responsibility for the sacrifices of this metzora,’ and the afflicted person was poor, he must bring the sacrifices of a wealthy man, for the person who took the vow has the financial capacity.”

Now, how counterintuitive is that?

Up until the rich man got involved, the metzora qualified for the Torah’s price cut, so why should the cost go up just because his sponsor has a few extra bucks? Isn’t the wealthy man just picking up someone else’s discounted tab?

The far-reaching answer is that Jewish law does not view the rich man’s financial aid as an act of generosity (alone), but as an act of unity. This isn’t about one person helping another in need; it’s about one person uncovering the other within himself. The bond revealed in these individuals is so strong that the sin of one is shared by the other, as is its rectification.

But how can the Torah—a system of thought that places emphasis on personal responsibility—allow one Jew to effectively absolve another from sin?

What motivates this allowance is not the notion of societal responsibility, where the privileged provide for the needy (proof of this is the fact that a poor person can pay for a wealthy man’s sacrifice as well), but rather Judaism’s unique understanding of community, where every Jew is essentially one with another. A lack in one is a lack in all.

An example of this powerful idea of shared identity is the Jewish prayerbook, produced by the sages, which features many prayers crafted in the plural. This was their way of declaring the needs of the entire community to be the needs of each individual.

And the same is true of personal shortcomings, which are transferred to the collective spiritual bank account belonging to the Jewish people as a whole.

An appropriate metaphor often employed to understand this kind of unity is the kosher status of a Torah scroll—the symbol of our nation’s sanctity—which directly depends on the kashrut of each letter. If even one letter is disqualified, so is the entire scroll.

We Have Sinned

A case in point is the central Yom Kippur prayer of atonement titled Al Chet, which opens each statement of “confession” with the word ashamnu, “We have transgressed.”

The seeming absurdity here, aside from the use of the plural “we” by the individual confessing, is the fact that this plea of forgiveness—which introduces such sins as incest, theft and gossip—is offered by even the most righteous among us, by those who couldn’t be more removed from the iniquities to which they confess!

But the underlying idea here is far from absurd, for during the elevated time of Yom Kippur, Jewish people have access to an elevated (and interchangeable) spirit, when their oneness is manifest, and when the spiritual deficiency of transgression in one is experienced and can be felt by all.

To return to our rich man. By choosing to pay for the sin-offering of his fellow Jew, he reveals his inner connection with the metzora in question, whereby he discovers in himself the need for atonement. This explains why he pays according to his own financial capability; for at that level of peoplehood, it’s not someone else’s tab he is picking up, but his own.

The above sheds light on an alternate translation of a fundamental tenet in Judaism, simply translated as, “All of Israel is responsible [literally, are guarantors] for each other.”3

The word arev, or “guarantor,” can also mean “mixed together.” This expression thus teaches that all of Israel are more than just guarantors for each other, where one person picks up another’s tab; they are intrinsically interconnected.

A People United

This snippet of Jewish law helps illuminate the stark contrast between the Jewish and the Western democratic concepts of society.

“The only society that works today is also one founded on the recognition that we have a responsibility (italics mine) collectively and individually to help each other.” —Tony Blair

“Provision for others is a fundamental responsibility (italics mine) of human life.” —Woodrow Wilson

At the heart of the secular understanding of society is the principle of responsibility, from the Latin word for “respond,” which charges all citizens of the world to heed the call of those more needy than themselves, whether for altruistic reasons or for the benefit of each individual as part of the whole, in line with social contract theory.

The Jewish concept of society, however, couldn’t differ more. At its center is the notion of kehillah, which means “to unite,” not just “to gather” (for which the Hebrew term is asifah). The word “community” best captures this idea in English, as it is derived from the words “common” and “unity.”

This perspective calls on the Jewish people to reveal their oneness, or commonality, and promotes the belief that at our core we are not one of many, but many that are one.

A Matter of Attitude

Two leading Jewish activists once attended a conference on issues critical to the integrity of Jewish education. Alas, their efforts to effect positive change for Jewish education did not bear fruit.

After the conference one of the men noticed his colleague looking distraught. “My friend,” he said gently, trying to lift his spirits, “didn’t we truly do everything in our ability to better the situation? It’s not our fault that things didn’t work out this time, so why are you so inconsolable?”

The dejected activist replied, “I know that we did everything in our power and more, and also that it wasn’t our fault that we failed. But the fact remains, az der inyan hot zich nisht ufgeton—the objective wasn’t realized!”

The first activist could rest because he had discharged his responsibility to the other; the second activist could not relax, because he viewed the need of the “other” as his own.

What’s in It for Me?

On the global level: the way we respond to international natural disasters says a lot of about our attitudes and motivations. Are the tsunami, Katrina and Haiti still on our minds, or have we shifted our focus as soon as the media shifted theirs? We may have “done what we could,” but there’s so much more to do.

On the local level: do you view the challenges that face your local charity, synagogue or school as your own problem or theirs? Do you see the good causes you’re involved with as your own, or someone else’s that you merely contribute to?

On the personal level: do you sympathize or empathize? When you listen to someone who is hurting, do you feel bad for them or with them?4

Now, don’t feel guilty that you don’t take every issue on the planet personally, but make sure that there is at least one issue that you do.

Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 27, pp. 101–106.