Shabbat 139

When we sneeze.

“When France sneezes,” said 19th-century Prussian diplomat Klemens Wenzel Furst von Metternich, “all of Europe catches a cold.” In French-dominated Napoleonic Europe, this certainly held true, and while geopolitical power may have shifted some in the last few centuries, the broader implication still does: a small misfortune for those with a great deal of power can have consequences, sometimes severe ones, for those with less.

A sneeze is involuntary, and a sneezer is likely blameless, but today’s page explores a similar process of causation where the actor bears more culpability for things going awry:

It was taught that Rabbi Yosei ben Elisha says: If you see a generation experiencing many troubles, go and examine the judges of Israel. Any calamity that comes to the world comes due to the judges of Israel acting corruptly.

Heavy — but understandable, if perhaps a touch hyperbolic. Judges, in this context, are not simply arbiters of disagreement but likely have a great deal of political power as well. Indeed, throughout much of Jewish history, judges were a seat of serious power. When leaders undermine justice and embrace dishonesty, Rabbi Yosei ben Elisha reminds us, society and individuals suffer. In this case, we might smile indulgently at the idea that the rabbis imagine that the judges of Israel to be so powerful their corruption can bring calamity on the whole world. Or, we might choose to interpret it as a statement of the deadly serious responsibility that comes with power.

As much as this outcome may be unfair, it’s hard to argue with the underlying truth which speaks to our day as well: the public good rests in the hands of people we hope make wise and fair decisions for everyone’s benefit. Conversely, leaders’ failures, whether intentional or accidental, can bring about comprehensive disaster. Perhaps for this reason, an entire tractate of the Talmud — Horayot (“Decisions”) — explores what happens when leaders make mistakes, what happens to the people who follow them, and how they can collectively make things right and whole after they do.

It’s a theme that in fact runs throughout the Talmud. Taanit 11a, which we will encounter in about 16 months, gestures toward a solution: leaders must always feel a deep solidarity with their constituents. The rabbis find an illustration of this idea in Moses’ leadership during a war with the Amalekites:

When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul . . . Rather, a person should be distressed together with the community. As we found with Moses our teacher that he was distressed together with the community, as it is stated during the war with Amalek: But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat upon it. (Exodus 17:12) But didn’t Moses have one pillow or one cushion to sit upon; why was he forced to sit on a rock? Rather, Moses said as follows: Since the Jewish people are immersed in suffering, I too will be with them in suffering, as much as I am able, although I am not participating in the fighting. A beraita adds: Anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.

When those with the power of choice are insulated from the impact of their actions, decisions can easily become abstract, hypothetical, distant and bad. Exercising leadership requires deep identification with those we are leading, taking responsibility for the results of our actions and owning the adverse effects of what we bring into the world. When we sneeze, confirming we have enough tissues for ourselves alone isn’t enough; bolstering the health of those who catch cold from us is demanded.

Read all of Shabbat 139 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 23, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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