Collective Responsibility

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


Collective Responsibility

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book is a final communication between Moshe and the flock he has so faithfully led these past forty years in the desert. 

In this final talk he would review many of the commandments and give over seventy new ones, mostly dealing with the land of Israel.  Moshe knew he would not lead them into Israel, and was preparing the people for this. 

One of the first things Moshe gave over in his communiqué was a rebuke to the Jewish people for the many sins they had committed while in the desert (their constant complaining, the golden calf, Korach, and the spies). 

In the middle of Moshe’s rebuke he blesses them: “May G-d, the G-d of your forefathers, add to you a thousand times yourselves, and bless you as He has spoken of you” (Deut. Ch.1 V.11). The Midrash states that G-d told Moshe to add this blessing. What made the Jewish people deserving of a blessing at this particular point? 

The Midrash goes on to state that while Moshe was criticizing them, the Jewish people had a legitimate protest: the incidents which Moshe was referring to happened before most of them were even alive! After the incident of the spies (when the spies went into Israel and gave a bad report, and many of the men believed their report over the promise of G-d), it was decreed upon the men of that generation that they would perish in the desert.   The people to whom Moshe was talking could have easily complained, “We were not even there.  Why are you rebuking us?”  To their credit, the people accepted the rebuke without a word.

But why is their acceptance of the seemingly unfair rebuke considered a meritorious act? When a person is unfairly accused, it is important for him to protest these unfair accusations. And are we as Jews held accountable for the sins of our fathers?

Obviously, their failure to complain showed a certain maturity and understanding about their role as Jews.

The Jewish people have a collective responsibility: the responsibility to repair the world. The way in which this is done is through keeping the Torah. Each generation must do its best to accomplish this goal. But even if the Jews of a particular generation do not complete the goal, it does not mean all their accomplishments are for naught. Whatever a generation is able to accomplish, much like building a part of a building, it has made it easier for the next generation, much like a contractor inheriting a partially finished building.

Similarly, if a generation sins and creates barriers, then the next generation has a harder job, much like a contractor will have a harder job building on a ruined foundation.

When they heard the criticism from Moshe, they did not take it “personally”; rather, they took the experiences of their forefathers as something to learn and from which to grow, and to know which mistakes to avoid.

G-d does not visit the iniquities of the fathers onto their children. And we must see each other as part of a chain from Sinai, sharing a collective responsibility.


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