From the other side of the bench: Not my brother's keeper


By David Seidemann

Issue of Oct. 17, 2008

The number seven represents nature in Judaism, and the ultimate that man can achieve in its realm. At the conclusion of every cycle of seven, days or years, we are reminded of G-d’s ultimate direction over the course of our lives.

Every seven days we celebrate a Sabbath indicating to mankind that despite man’s creativity in this world, G-d is the ultimate creator. Every seven years Jewish farmers must let their fields lie fallow to mark Shmittah. Despite all that we were able to provide for our families over seven years, G-d is our ultimate provider.

Seven years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, the message was delivered that G-d is the ultimate decider of humanity’s fate. Beginning in the final weeks of the Shmittah year just past, and continuing today, the message that sustenance is not in man’s hands is being driven home. At this writing the global financial markets are still in free fall; I heard last week that many more Wall Street traders than in the past are taking out time for prayer at a small, nearby church that was celebrated in the days after 9/11 for providing spiritual relief to Christians.

Like it or not, we are all members of one family. We rise together and we fall together. That is the double-edged sword of being children of Abraham. On the one hand we can benefit from the good deeds of others, on the other we can suffer due to the iniquities of our brothers and sisters. That’s part of the deal, part of being a family – whether we mortals perceive it as “fair” or not.

At least three distinct theories are advanced by our rabbis as to why the good seem to suffer while the wicked prosper. And even more difficult to comprehend is why the good suffer because of the deeds of the evil.

First, an approach advanced by many of the early commentators is that the noble are held accountable for not protesting the evil deeds of others. A second approach, advanced by many scholars, and addressed by contemporary Talmudic greats such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l, focuses on the aforementioned concept of Tzibur, or community. That is to say that all Jews are inherently responsible for each and every other Jew. We are like one body with each Jew simply representing another organ or cell.

Meiri, the Talmudic commentary, advances this third approach: Were the wicked to perish as a result of their evil deeds, the rest of humanity would not refine its character. Man’s natural reaction would be to conclude: “No wonder that evil person died, he was wicked. On the other hand, I was spared; I must be on the right path, all must be fine with me.” Only when the righteous person suffers will the average man conclude: “If it could happen to him and he is righteous I should take heed and should work on my own character. I should refine my behavior, for I am certainly no angel.”

Despite these explanations it remains elusive why a particular righteous person or family should be touched by tragedy, and whether their suffering is personal or a result of the misdeeds of others. It would be presumptuous of any mortal to render an opinion. But the fact remains that whenever we act in an inappropriate manner, either with our fellow man or with G-d, we create the possibility that good people will potentially suffer for our selfish, haughty, arrogant, anti-Torah behavior. That increases the level of vigilance with which we should approach our negative behavior. The degree of selfishness involved in making a personal decision to stray ultimately will affect the amount of responsibility the wrongdoer will bear – not only for his own transgression but also for his selfishness in placing his own self-interest before that of G-d and his fellow man. Not just the actual sin will be judged but also the self-absorption; the potential that good people might suffer as a result.

When a haughty, select few choose to act in a way that is openly defiant to the wishes of a rav, they endanger our whole community. Instead of being envied, honored and worshiped, they should be shunned. Their wealth and good health today allow them to act with such impunity. Lost on them is the message of “seven,” that G-d could take their health and wealth from them in a moment’s time. Were that to happen, their pride and arrogance would be replaced by the same wails and pleas for mercy as those of the perpetual pauper and the terminally ill.

It’s simply for self-preservation that we must protest against the misguided actions of the arrogant and haughty. We must let them, and G-d, know that they are not us and we are not them. That far from impressing us, they depress us.

The great joy of Succos can only be celebrated after a heavy dose of humility experienced on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann & Mermelstein. He can be reached at (718) 692-1013 and at