Unity, Solidarity, and Fraternal Love Hastens the Final Redemption
It is written, “All Israel are guarantors one for another” (Shavuot 39a). The guarantee of one for another is what unites us like a single body, and thus by force of circumstance we are united to G-d, Who is the link between all Jews. Man’s goal is to connect himself to G-d, which is why we say Shema Israel in the singular (not in the plural). G-d is One and His Name is One, and His people Israel are one, like a single body.
In Egypt, Jews strived to be guarantors for each other, which is what prepared them to receive the Torah. It is written, “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2), on which Rashi relates the Midrash: “As one person with one heart” (Mechilta ad loc.). How did they achieve such a result in only a few days? It was because they practiced this during the many years that preceded the giving of the Torah, whenever they suffered under the yoke of the Egyptians as they tried to divide them, destroy their faith, and exterminate them. Despite all this, the Children of Israel felt the collective responsibility that united them, and each one knew that everyone else shared his pain and supported him, that there were 600,000 companions that cared for him and desired his good, as Jacob had instructed them. It is written, “The Children of Israel were going out with an upraised arm” (Exodus 14:8). They had defeated the Egyptian’s efforts at breaking their solidarity and, on the contrary, the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more they reinforced their unity, which brought them closer to G-d and enabled them to be free of the yoke of slavery.
The Sages state that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred (Yoma 9b), and that generation was punished with the exile that we still find ourselves in. On the other hand, “During the time of the First Temple, there existed good and upright men, and the length of their exile was revealed, as it is written: ‘After seventy years for Babylon have been completed, I will attend to you and I will fulfill for you My favorable promise, to return you to this place’ (Jeremiah 29:10)” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu 14). Hence they emerged from the exile after seventy years. To explain the difference, the Sages have said, “The former ones, whose iniquity was revealed, had their end revealed” (Yoma 9b). Thus the bitter exile that we still find ourselves in today is even graver than the first exile, since its length is not known. However if our exile has no fixed length, its duration depends only on us; it is in our power to end it. The destruction of the Temple was caused by sins between man and man, baseless hatred and strife, and it depends solely on us to correct these sins, be it sooner or later. We are the ones who must put an end to the painful time of the exile, for “if one comes to purify himself, he is given help” (Yoma 38b). Despite the difficulties accumulated over the course of time that weaken us from generation to generation, despite our physical differences, variations in character traits, different ideals, and so on, we must remain united “as one person with one heart.” Concerning man and woman it is stated, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Even though they are different beings, one male and the other female, apparently belonging to two different worlds, they form but one body, and the Divine Presence abides with them when they are united (Sotah 17a).
Attaining such unity is only possible if each person renounces selfishness – if he is not content with simply declaring that he loves his fellow, but truly feels this love and wholeheartedly shares the pains and joys of others.
Unfortunately, we are afflicted with grave sins and it has become the norm to disparage others, even though each person was created in the image of G-d. By doing so, we are hurting ourselves and we will end up by disparaging the Torah and its commandments. Concerning this the Sages have said, “In the footsteps of the Messiah…the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog” (Sotah 49b), an expression that we need to understand. Why is it precisely the face of a dog that such a generation will resemble? We know that a dog naturally looks to its master with pleading eyes in order to arouse his compassion. On the other hand, a dog always walks before his master, meaning that it puts itself ahead of him. This comparison indicates that people will also have “the face of a dog” before the coming of the Messiah. This means that they will look at one another with eyes full of compassion, as if they desired their good, yet in their hearts they will give priority to themselves, always wanting to be first. Such behavior demonstrates that this “love for others” is not sincere, and we must be wary of it and distance ourselves from such hypocritical signs of love. We must take to heart the advice of Jacob and remain sincerely united, for this is the only attitude that will help and save us.
On this subject, it seems appropriate to recall the mitzvah of giving the half-shekel, an act that teaches solidarity.
It is written, “Moses addressed himself to the Holy One, blessed be He, saying: ‘Sovereign of the universe, how shall the horn of Israel be exalted?’ He replied, ‘Through taking their ransom’ ” (Bava Batra 10b). It is difficult to understand how numbering the Children of Israel (achieved when each person brought his half-shekel) would exactly exalt Israel’s honor.
A poor person would bring a half-shekel just as a rich person would, and the former would not complain that he was required to bring the same amount as one who was wealthy and had more means. Similarly, the wealthy person would not be offended to bring a half-shekel like one who was poor, for this would not bring the rich person honor (since he has the ability to bring more). Both rich and poor bring the same amount, in perfect equality, and it is in this way that Israel’s honor is exalted. How much more is this the case when, by giving a half-shekel, each person realizes that he is but a half (and therefore imperfect), and that it is only by associating himself with the other that he becomes complete, that he becomes whole. G-d commanded each person to bring a half-shekel in order to be numbered, rather than each person writing his name on a piece of paper or bringing a sheep, bull, or some object. G-d wanted everyone to be equal before this commandment (rather than some being superior or inferior to others), so that each person would feel both his own deficiencies and the virtues of his fellowman. He wanted that everyone should desire to help his fellow in order to rectify his own defects, thus allowing him to perform the commandments in joy.
We can now understand what the Sages meant when they said that Moses had difficulty understanding the commandment of the half-shekel: “God removed a coin of fire from under his Throne of Glory and He showed it to Moses, saying, ‘This is what they shall give’ ” (Tanhuma Ki Tisa 9). Is it possible that Moses did not know what a half-shekel coin looked like, such that G-d had to show it to him?
Moses certainly knew what a half-shekel looked like. However he did not understand why each person, whether he be rich or poor, had to bring it. It is evident that the Torah decreed an equal amount for everyone in order to signify that they are equal before G-d.
We may also understand why Haman told King Achashverosh, “I will pay ten thousand silver talents [equal to 300,000 shekels] into the hands of those who perform the duties, for deposit in the king’s treasuries” (Esther 3:9). Why did he want to deposit this money into the king’s coffers in order to kill the Jews? It is because at that time, the Jews were not equal to one another. They were divided, to the extent that Haman could tell the king, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples” (v.8). They were divided, their customs varied, they differed from one another, and they stood out from each other. That being the case, Haman’s money would be able to tip the scales to their detriment.
Nevertheless, the decree was annulled when the Jews were united, as Esther told Mordechai: “Go, assemble all the Jews” (Esther 4:15) – that they unite and assemble themselves. Afterwards they remained united, as it is written, “The Jews that were in Shushan assembled again…the rest of the Jews that were in the king’s provinces assembled” (Esther 9:15-16) – united by the same will.
Jews gave the half-shekel on Purim in order to express their unity and proclaim that it was solely this which saved them from Haman’s decree, as he himself admitted: “Your ten manehs have conquered my ten thousand silver talents” (Esther Rabba 10:4). The bonds that united them were what saved them, thanks to Esther, who tied her fate to that of her people when she directed the Jews to assemble and be united.
It is written, “When Israel stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘In truth, shall I give you the Torah? Bring Me good guarantors that you will keep it, and then I will give it to you.’ …They said to Him, ‘Our children will be our guarantors’ ” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:24), which G-d accepted.
The Lev Eliyahu asks why G-d demanded guarantors from the Children of Israel before giving them the Torah, since they explicitly said, “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). G-d, Who knows the depths of the heart, knew that the Children of Israel had unwavering faith, especially after having witnessed great miracles in Egypt, at the Sea of Reads, and during the war against Amalek. Therefore why did G-d only give them the Torah once they presented their children as guarantors?
In response, we see with our own eyes that even the extra guarantee that the Children of Israel presented to G-d was unfortunately not enough to prevent both parents and children from committing sins and abandoning the Torah. Just how much worse would the situation have been had they had no guarantors! G-d is well aware that the evil inclination is powerful and that it pushes a man to sin precisely by abandoning Torah. It means little to the evil inclination that Jews perform many commandments and good deeds; what bothers it above all else is to see us engaged in Torah study. G-d Himself says that He would prefer that Jews abandon Him and observe the Torah (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:7), for the light of Torah would always lead them back to G-d. Thus G-d asked for guarantors in order to give them the Torah, which is the remedy against the evil inclination.
The Sages have said, “If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. …If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah” (Berachot 5a). Why is this so? It is because G-d does not immediately punish a person’s children (his guarantors) when he has abandoned Torah study. G-d instead warns him through suffering and misfortune in order that he examines his conduct and finds the reason for his ills. If he does not find the reason, his children will then be punished. Great fear will take hold of anyone who realizes that, if he neglects the Torah, his children will suffer as a result. The Sages have said, “Children die as a punishment for…the sin of Torah neglect” (Shabbat 32b). This is because they are the guarantors for their parents. We must recall what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, “There is no greater pain than seeing one’s children being harmed.” If they take to the wrong path, they will be considered as dead (G-d help us) because of the sin of parents who neglected the Torah.
The Children of Israel sincerely declared, “We will do and we will hear.” G-d, however, added that they must realize just how powerful the evil inclination becomes when it sees them occupied with Torah study, trying by all means to turn them away from it. This is why G-d asked them to present guarantors, for this would prevent them from abandoning the Torah; these guarantors would remind them of their duties. G-d rejected their proposal of making themselves guarantors, since they were directly concerned and involved. G-d also rejected their proposal of making the Patriarchs their guarantors, for the Patriarchs themselves needed guarantors. G-d accepted their children, however, who were assuredly firm guarantors.
The suffering endured by children is in fact very painful for parents. It is a known fact that a person will prefer any kind of suffering than to see his children afflicted, to the point that the Sages have termed it “chastisements of love” (Berachot 5b). The thought that our children (who are our guarantors) can suffer because of our neglect of Torah is so frightening that it gives us an unwavering will to fight the evil inclination.
We note that the punishment of a single man is even worse. If a man has no wife, he has no children and thus nobody as his guarantor. The very prerequisite for giving the Torah was that a man have children who would be guarantors for its observance. Whoever does not have children annuls this fundamental prerequisite. Furthermore, “Seven are banned by Heaven. They are: A Jew who has no wife; he who has a wife but no children...” (Pesachim 113b). Ben Azzai, one of the four Sages who entered the Garden (Hagigah 14b), died as a result, even though he said, “My soul delights in the Torah” (Bereshith Rabba 34:14) and, “All the Sages of Israel are, in comparison with myself, as thin as the husk of garlic” (Berachot 58a). He nevertheless died because he had no guarantors. King Hezekiah also became guilty by his refusal to marry, for he did not want to have unworthy children (Berachot 10a). He did not practice the Torah’s first commandment, which is to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
It is written, “Even though Hezekiah saw by way of prophesy that he would have an unworthy son, he would have been punished in the other world if he had not, in the end, married” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu 8). Why is that the case? It is because children are guarantors for parents in this world and the next, for “a son confers privileges on his father” (Sanhedrin 104a) after his death. A father who educates his children in the way of Torah and the performance of the commandments ensures that the Torah will always remain alive. This is the purpose of the guarantee.