Ethics Now and Then 93 – Avot 5:21

Pirkei Avot 5:21

Whoever makes a multitude meritorious, no sin shall come through him; but whoever brings a multitude to sin will not be given the means to achieve repentance. Moses attained virtue and brought a multitude ot virtue; so the merit of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “He effected the righteousness of the Lord, and His ordinances with Israel.” Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and brought a multitude to sin; so the iniquity of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “…for the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned and made Israel sin.”

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Whoever makes a multitude meritorious, no sin shall come through him; but whoever brings a multitude to sin will not be given the means to achieve repentance.

In general, each person has free will to choose whether or not to sin. Faced with the complexities of modern life, however, the matter is not as straightforward as it seems and incidents arise that trigger inadvertant sin. A thoughtless word or action can have repercussions that cause others to stumble and sin. The more influence a person has, and the wider the reach of his words and actions, the more careful and diligent he needs to be.

The principle also applies on an individual level. If we consider that each life is like a whole world, the effect we have on even one other person is of great importance. This mishnah of Pirkei Avot, however, particularly cautions those in positions of influence and power to be very concerned and careful that their communication and actions toward others will encourage them to do good and to act with integrity – to lead honest and commendable lives. Conversely, a dire warning is given that if such a one leads many others to sinful conduct, and their lives are adversely affected as a result, he himself will not find recourse to repentance but will have to account for the negative consequences in the lives of others.

 Moses attained virtue and brought a multitude ot virtue; so the merit of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “He effected the righteousness of the Lord, and His ordinances with Israel.”

Parents and teachers are faced with the responsibility of the influence they have on the lives of the young ones in their care. Young children in particular learn more via the attitudes and behavior they witness and experience than from verbal lessons taught. When the words spoken are right and good but are accompanied by negative, unrighteous behavior a child, who cannot understand the concept of: “Do what is said but not what is done,” will be impressed and scarred by the unrighteous behavior they witness.

The more lives that are affected by those with influence, the greater the responsibility they bear. However, those who instruct and influence others to walk in righteousness, in the ways and ordinances of the Lord, will accrue a corresponding measure of reward. The Sages use Moses as an example. He transmitted and taught the words of God to a great number of the redeemed Israelites; however, the number of those who have been reached with the Torah, through the generations since the Exodus, is exponentially greater.

Moses must well have been aware of the great responsibility he carried and we see that he evidenced single-minded devotion to the people under his care. His self-interest was negated and his focus on the well-being and growth of the Israelites was absolute. He indeed reflected the characteristic of God, with whom he spoke ‘face-to-face,’ in the chesed, loving-kindness, with which he cared for others.

Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and brought a multitude to sin; so the iniquity of the multitude is referred to him, as it is stated: “…for the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned and made Israel sin.”

The Sages refer to Jeroboam, the king of Judea as an example of one who brought many to sin. He set up the two golden calves in Beth El and ordained many priests to lead those in his kingdom in worship of them, pronouncing: “Behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28). His desire was to set up a cult center that rivalled the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jeroboam, in fact, as William Berkson describes, “…was instrumental in splitting the united kingdom of Solomon into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the former led by him and the latter by Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.” * We also read in 1 Kings 13:33-34, that he did not repent and his whole house “…suffered annihilation from the face of the earth”. Berkson adds: “The northern kingdom of Israel eventually dissolved without a legacy [the ten tribes were lost and scattered], whereas Judah endured and its legacy is today’s Jewish people.”** It appears that God, in His mercy, is today also restoring a complement of the lost tribes of the house of Israel to the restored Land of Israel.

It is important to note that no person who sincerely repents will be denied forgiveness by God. What the mishnah is referring to is that a person who deliberately plans to lead others into sin very likely will not repent. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a renowned psychologist, asks the question: “Why would a person wish that another person should sin? …What gain is there in causing others to sin?” He answers the question himself: “It is only an ego drive that can lead a person to cause others to sin. …His guilt feelings for his own improper behavior are mitigated if others sin along with him.” *** This type of person is unlikely to do teshuvah, to repent, because his conscience becomes deadened and, in justifying his actions, he eliminates the sensation of guilt and its accompanying feelings of distress that motivate a person to repent.

In leading his people into idolatry, with the egoistic purpose to block not only their worship of the true God but also the possibility of their allegiance to Rehoboam the king of Judea rather than to himself, Jeroboam carried the penalty not only for his personal sin but the sins of all those affected by his orders and influence.

 

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Footnotes: 

*  William Berkson, PIrke Avot, 174

** Ibid.; 174

*** Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., Visions of the Fathers, 315

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