Occupying Oneself With the Needs of the Community

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


When Yeshivat Har Etzion was first established, I was asked what would be special about our yeshiva. I related the story told about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Admor ha-Zaken), author of the Tanya, who was once studying Torah in his room, when all of a sudden, he heard his infant grandson, the future author of the Tzemach Tzedek, crying in his cradle. The Rebbe closed his Gemara, went into the baby's room and soothed him back to sleep. He then went into the adjoining room, where he found his son, the baby's father (known as the "middle Rebbe"), steeped in Torah study. The Rebbe turned to his son in astonishment and asked: "Why didn't you get up to pacify your crying son?"

The bewildered son looked up and answered: "I was so immersed in my study that I didn't even hear him cry."

The Rebbe then declared: "If someone is studying Torah, and fails to hear the crying of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning."

This has been the message of our yeshiva from its very establishment: to be attentive to the crying child, in the widest sense of "crying" - that is to say, to be alert to the needs of the Jewish people.

In the past, I used to tell my students before they went out for military service, that alongside the Benei Akiva movement, a "Benei Kehat" movement must be established. The role assigned to the descendants of Kehat was "bearing on their shoulders" (Bamidbar 7:9).[1] It is important that in every society and in every family there be those who feel that the burden of society or the family rests upon their shoulders, and as a result they will initiate and organize activities on behalf of the community. Various obligations fall upon the community, both interpersonal matters and matters between man and God. In order for these obligations to be fulfilled, individuals must step forward and assume the responsibility of seeing that they are executed. It is a bad sign for any association of people if none of its members are willing to assume this role.

When an individual finds himself in such company, he is bound by the well-known obligation: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" (Avot 2:5). Rashi explains: "Strive to occupy yourself with the needs of the community, but in a place where there is a man [fulfilling that role], you should occupy yourself in your Torah." A person is not necessarily required to search for ways to serve the community, but if there is nobody else to fill that niche, the obligation falls upon every person to address those needs.

In actual practice, many people run away from tzarchei tzibbur, public-service positions. (On the other hand, some people run after such positions, and in many cases are unfit for them.) They rationalize their behavior in various ways: concern about the detrimental effect that such responsibilities will have on their personal or spiritual development; desire not to stand out; and concern that public service will be interpreted as stemming from a desire for honor and power. Often, however, behind these excuses there lies a more basic problem: laziness and shirking of responsibility.

This avoidance sometimes has an additional cause. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook speaks about the negative effects of external fear of Heaven, how it stifles man and causes him to do nothing (Orot ha-Kodesh III, rosh davar 12):

When the fear of God first falls upon man, generally and individually, it brings him to stupefaction and idleness… He turns into a feeble person, the public arena becomes deficient; there is no strength or desire to effect improvements, nor to enhance social relations.

Faulty fear of Heaven can lead to idleness, which is the underlying cause of inactivity in the public sphere.


Rambam sharply criticizes lack of concern about what is happening in society (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 205):

He has commanded us to rebuke the sinner or one who wishes to sin, and prevent him from doing so through speech and reproach. It is unfitting to say: "I will not sin; if someone else wishes to sin, what does it have to do with me, his issue is with God" - this is the opposite of the Torah. We are commanded not to transgress and not to allow other members of our people to transgress, and if someone tries to transgress, we are obligated to rebuke him and bring him to repent.

According to Rambam, remaining aloof from activity undertaken on behalf of the community is "the opposite of the Torah." This fits in well with what he says with respect to the degrees of prophesy (Guide of the Perplexed II:45):

The first of the degrees of prophecy consists in the fact that an individual receives a Divine help that moves and activates him to a great, righteous, and important action - such as the deliverance of a community of virtuous people from a community of wicked people, or the deliverance of a virtuous and great man, or the conferring of benefits on numerous people. The individual in question finds in himself something that moves and incites him to action, and that is called "the spirit of the Lord" (Shofetim 14:6, and elsewhere).

"The spirit of the Lord," according to Rambam, consists of a feeling of responsibility towards society. Sharp condemnation of those who show disregard for the community is found also in the words of Chazal. For example, the Gemara in Ta'anit (11a) states:

Our Rabbis taught: At a time when Israel is immersed in distress, and one of them has separated himself [from the community], the two ministering angels who accompany a man come and place their hands on his head and say: "This man, So-and-so, who has separated himself from the community, let him not see the consolation of the community."

Another [baraita] was taught: At a time when the community is immersed in distress, a person should not say: "I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul." If he does so, the verse says of him: "Behold joy and gladness, killing cattle and slaughtering sheep, eating meat and drinking wine. Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (Yeshayahu 22:13). What is written after it? "And it was revealed in my ears by the Lord of Hosts: Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die" (ibid., verse 14).

A person is morally obligated to feel that he is part of the community and to act on its behalf.


The Sages of Israel were well aware of the spiritual price extracted by involvement in community affairs, but they did not see that price as sufficient reason to abstain from community service. The Mishna in Avot (2:2) cites the words of Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi:

Let all those who occupy themselves with [the affairs of] the community do so only for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of their fathers will sustain them and their devotion to duty will endure forever. "But as for you," [says God], "I credit you with great reward, as if you had accomplished it."

Rambam explains (in his commentary to the Mishna, ad loc.):

"I credit you with great reward, as if you had accomplished it." These are the words of God to those who toil on behalf of the community, for they are sometimes prevented from performing a mitzva when they occupy themselves with [the affairs of] the community. God, blessed be He, says that He will credit them with reward as if they had performed the mitzva, even though they did not do it, since they occupied themselves with the heavenly affairs of the community.

In other words, even though public service extracts a spiritual price, a person should occupy himself with community affairs, and God will reward him as if he had performed the mitzvot that he had missed as a result.

Rabbenu Yona adds in his commentary to that Mishna:

It may also be explained: A person should not say: "Why should I trouble myself to become involved in community affairs? Those whom I will cause to contribute, they alone will be rewarded, for it is their money!" This is not true, for it is beneficial to you to occupy yourself in [communal] affairs, for ancestral merit helps us, and you will have greater success in [community] affairs than in your own affairs, for ancestral merit is great. I will credit you as if you had done it all from your own [money], and as if you had given of your own assets that which you caused others to contribute.

The same idea emerges from other sources as well. For example, Midrash Bereishit Rabba (parasha 36, 3) states:

Rabbi Berakhya said: Moshe was more loved than Noach. Noach, after he had been called "a righteous man" (Bereishit 6:9), was called "a man of the earth" (ibid., 9:20). But Moshe, after he had been called "an Egyptian man" (Shemot 2:19), was called "a man of God" (Devarim 33:1).

Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk explains (Meshekh Chokhma, Bereishit 9:20):

This means that there are two paths in the service of God, blessed be He. One path is that of one who dedicates himself to the service of God and goes into seclusion; and [the second path] is that of one who occupies himself in the affairs of the community, negating himself on their behalf and renouncing himself for their sake.

This being the case, we should say that the one who goes into seclusion will rise higher and higher, whereas the other one's [spiritual] stature will deteriorate[2] … Yet we find that Noach secluded himself and refrained from reproaching the people of his generation. It was therefore said about him (see Sanhedrin 108a) that he, too, was fit for destruction, having gone into seclusion. Therefore, after having been called "a righteous man," he went down in level and was called "a man of the earth." But Moshe, who was called "an Egyptian man" after having been forced into exile… since he endangered his life on behalf of Israel when he killed the Egyptian, was called "a man of God," for he reached the ultimate perfection that man can attain.

Moshe's assumption of responsibility for all of Israel and his activity in that realm brought him to a much higher level than that of Noach, who secluded himself and failed to involve himself in community affairs, dedicating himself entirely to his own personal development.

The son of the Chatam Sofer explains the virtue of Avraham Avinu in similar fashion (in Pituchei Chotam, in the introduction to Responsa Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De'a):

Wonderful was God's love for Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, for having imparted knowledge to the people and drawing them close to His service. This is what stood for him more than any good deed and merit of the soul that he had achieved on his own.

For in truth, even before him there were unique individuals who knew God and desired knowledge of His ways. Who is greater than Chanokh? … He was lifted up to become like one of the heavenly host who stand before the King to minister to him. And we do not find that the earthly elements of Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, became that purified.

But it was not on account of any deficiency or lacking of his soul that Avraham did not reach this level… For he understood in his wisdom that God does not desire that man only perfect his soul, leaving the people of his generation behind, a brood of sinful men who provoke God to anger, as happened to the generation of Chanokh and the generation of the flood. This experience taught him that it is better for a person to give up a little on the perfection of his soul in order to increase the glory of God, reducing the number of those who rebel against him and increasing the number of those who serve and know Him.

Public service does indeed exact a personal cost. One's service of God, however, is not measured solely according to personal achievements. Service performed on behalf of the community is an essential element in the achievement of perfection, and personal development that does not involve any contribution to the community will not bring a person to perfection.


As stated above, there are those who flee from service to the community, claiming that they have no interest in wielding authority. The Gemara in Horayot (10a) says:

… Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Yehoshua once traveled on board a ship. Rabban Gamaliel had with him some bread, while Rabbi Yehoshua had with him bread and flour. When Rabban Gamaliel's bread was consumed, he depended on Rabbi Yehoshua's flour.

"Did you know," the former asked him, "that we would be so much delayed that you brought flour with you?"

The latter answered him: "A certain star rises once in seventy years and leads the sailors astray, and I suspected it might rise and lead us astray."

"You possess so much knowledge," the former said to him, "and yet must travel on board a ship [to earn a livelihood]!"

The other replied: "Rather than be surprised at me, marvel at two disciples you have on land, Rabbi Elazar Chisma and Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgada, who are able to calculate how many drops there are in the sea, and yet have neither bread to eat nor clothing to wear."

He decided to appoint them as heads, and when he landed, he sent for them, but they did not come. He sent for them a second time and when they came, he said to them: "Do you imagine that I am bestowing you with authority? I am imposing slavery upon you!" As it is said, "And they spoke to him, saying: If you will be a servant unto this people this day" (I Melakhim 12:7).

The Rishonim disagree about the position of authority that is the subject of this discussion. Rashi understands that the reference is to the role of rosh yeshiva:

"He decided" - Rabban Gamliel decided to appoint them heads [of the yeshiva] so that they might derive a livelihood from the position to which he appointed them.

Tosafot Rosh, however, raises an objection:

This is unclear, for [even though] the expression "to appoint them as heads" refers to [heads of a] yeshiva … [nevertheless,] in a yeshiva, what livelihood is there? Rather, because Rabbi Yehoshua praised them so much, [Rabban Gamliel] said: "They are fit to sit at the head and be appointed leaders of the community."

Whether the appointment was for the position of rosh yeshiva or for the role of community leader, we learn from here that, practically speaking, authority means slavery. Readiness to serve as a public functionary means readiness to be a slave. In several places in his commentary to the Torah, Rashi points out that community service must be accompanied by an awareness of the cost that will be extracted. When God commanded Moshe to delegate some of his responsibilities to the Elders, Rashi says (Bamidbar 11:17):

"And they shall bear [the burden of the people] with you" - stipulate with them that they shall join you in the understanding that they take upon themselves the burden of My children, because they are troublesome and uncompliant people.

Later in the same chapter, regarding Yehoshua's words, "My master, Moshe, restrain them" (verse 28), Rashi comments:

"Restrain them" - cast upon them the responsibility for public affairs and they will of themselves soon come to an end [through the worry and anxiety that this entails].

Similarly, when God tells Moshe to charge Yehoshua (Rashi, Bamidbar 27:19):

"And give him a charge" - concerning Israel; say to him: Know that they are troublesome, that they are uncompliant; accept your office with the knowledge that you will have to take upon yourself all this.

Let us conclude our discussion of the obligation to act on behalf of the community with the words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Kuzari, III, 19):

If the individual, however, neglects his being part of the whole, that is to say, his obligation to act on behalf of the welfare of the community of which he is part, and decides to retain any benefit that he may achieve for himself alone, he sins against the community, and more against himself. For the relation of the individual to the community is as the relation of the single limb to the body. Should the arm, in case bleeding is required, refuse its blood, the whole body, the arm included, would suffer. It is, however, the duty of the individual to bear hardships, or even death, for the sake of the welfare of the community. At the very least, he must consider his being part of the whole, so that he always give his portion, and not neglect it.


(Translated by David Strauss)