Moshe has successfully led the Israelites out of Egypt, split the Red Sea, brought the nation to Sinai, and delivered the Tablets of the Covenant and the Torah to them. He has overseen the construction of the Tabernacle and appointed Aharon at the helm of the priestly family.
Just when things are starting to settle down, suddenly Moshe wakes up one day to find a revolt brewing in the camp. His cousin, Korach, has gathered together 250 men. They’re surrounding Moshe’s tent and demanding to know what gives him the right to appoint his brother to the priesthood. After all, aren’t all the Israelites members of a holy nation?
Now, Moshe and Aharon knew full well that Hashem had commanded Aharon’s appointment. But if all these people were so angry, maybe they had acted inappropriately, in some way. They fall on their faces and take a few moments to contemplate the matter. What role had they played to precipitate the current dispute?
פָּשַׁט הֶעָנִי אֶת יָדוֹ לִפְנִים, וְנָטַל בַּעַל הַבַּיִת מִתּוֹכָהּ, אוֹ שֶׁנָּתַן לְתוֹכָהּ וְהוֹצִיא — שְׁנֵיהֶם פְּטוּרִין.
Mishnah: If the poor person extended his hand inside the house and either the householder took an object from his hand and placed it in the private domain or the householder placed an object into the hand of the poor person, and the poor person pulled his hand out of the house, both parties are exempt.
תַּנְיָא רַבִּי אוֹמֵר: ״מֵעַם הָאָרֶץ בַּעֲשׂוֹתָהּ״, הָעוֹשֶׂה אֶת כּוּלָּהּ, וְלֹא הָעוֹשֶׂה אֶת מִקְצָתָהּ. יָחִיד וְעָשָׂה אוֹתָהּ — חַיָּיב, שְׁנַיִם וְעָשׂוּ אוֹתָהּ — פְּטוּרִין.
Gemara: Rebbe said: It is written, “And if one soul sins unwittingly from the people of the land when he does it, one of the laws of God that should not be done and he is responsible”. One who does all of it, and not one who does part of it. Therefore, an individual, who performed an action in its entirety, is liable. However, two people, who performed an action together, are exempt.
מִי אִיכָּא בְּכוּלֵּי שַׁבָּת ״פָּטוּר וּמוּתָּר״?! וְהָאָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: כֹּל פְּטוּרֵי דְשַׁבָּת פָּטוּר אֲבָל אָסוּר
Shmuel says: All exempt rulings of Shabbat mean that whilst one is exempt (from liability and punishment), the action is nonetheless prohibited.
Strictly speaking, if two people break Shabbos together, they will not be liable to prosecution, because neither of them committed a complete prohibition on their own. Had the contribution of either been absent, nothing would have happened. A simple example of such behaviour is two people carrying a bed through the public domain on Shabbos. Each person on their own would be unable to do the melacha (forbidden activity). Therefore, neither of them are liable. Nevertheless, says Shmuel, even when an act is not prosecutable, it doesn’t make it permissible. It is patur aval assur – you are exempt from liability, but it is still forbidden to do.
The Kabbalists explain that even in a case where you are not liable to formal punishment at the hands of the earthly court, any form of spiritual misbehaviour requires a tikkun (soul-repair). Acting contrary to the Divine will requires teshuvah, to make amends and repair the tear in the spiritual rope that binds your soul with its heavenly source. You’ve acted inappropriately and, on a spiritual level, you need to mend the breach.
Our relationship with Heaven mirrors our relationships here on Earth. When two people are engaged in joint improper behaviour, each one perceives that they are not liable. If you can’t carry the bed alone, then how can you be held liable for transporting the bed? Likewise, if you’re involved in a dispute with another person – joint improper behaviour – it’s easy to dismiss your personal liability, because it’s their fault, not yours, right?
Indeed, had each individual been acting in a vacuum without the participation of the other person, they might have done nothing wrong. But put both pieces together, and we have a situation of conflict. From your perspective, you did nothing wrong. If they can’t handle your personality, that’s their problem, not yours! And if you did nothing wrong, why should you worry about what they think or say? How can you be liable for their thoughts and actions?!
Nevertheless, Shmuel clarifies that there’s a difference between liability and responsibility. You might not be liable, but that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible. You can’t have a conflict with yourself. In most instances, in a situation of discord between two people, each one has contributed to the disagreement. Even if one party started the dispute, the other party might have exacerbated it, even unwittingly.
Even if we believe we’ve done nothing wrong, we are required to engage in whatever efforts we can to mend the relationship. That might mean bringing in a third party to sit at the table. It might mean apologizing for your actions, even if you felt that your behaviour was justified. In fact, our Sages insist that one make three separate attempts to appease another individual who feels slighted by our actions.
It’s not easy to repair the breach in a relationship. Sometimes you’re convinced that it’s completely the other person’s fault. They’re acting completely unreasonably, and there’s nothing you did to contribute to the discord. The challenge is to look deep into one’s soul and ask oneself, ‘What might I have done, even unwittingly, to precipitate this person’s upset? Has there been any contributory negligence whatsoever on my part?’
That’s what bothered Moshe and Aharon. If Korach had so many people standing by his side, maybe they weren’t entirely blameless. And so they took a time-out to introspect. Now, as it turned out, no matter how deep within their souls they searched, they found they had done nothing wrong. Hashem reassured them that they were entirely blameless and that the rebellion was completely on account of Korach’s jealousy. To demonstrate their innocence, a miracle occurred – the ground opened up and swallowed them alive.
Those occasions do happen. You might have peered deep within your soul and found no wrongdoing. In addition, you’ve made every effort to seek to repair the breach with the other party. If, after three endeavours, they’re still refusing to make peace, our Sages teach that, at that point, you are absolved from all responsibility. Continue to ‘kill them with kindness’ and hope and pray that one day they’ll search within their souls and seek to make peace with you and themselves.
When an individual is engaged in misbehaviour, the liability for the act is clearly defined. When multiple parties are involved, things become more ambiguous. May you always be the first to take responsibility and seek to resolve and repair any ruptured situations!