Individual Versus Collective Guilt
Chapter 3, Law 5(a)
"At the time when they (i.e., the angels of the heavenly court) weigh the
sins of a person against his merits, they do not take into account the first
time he committed a [particular] sin nor the second time, but [they] only
[count] from the third time and on. If the person's sins from the third time
and on are more numerous than his merits, the first two sins are [also]
included (lit., 'combine') and they judge him on everything.
"If [however] his merits are found to be as numerous as his sins [counting]
from the third [of each] sin and on, they excuse (lit., 'move away') all his
sins, one at a time. [This is] because [now] the third sin is considered the
first since the [first] two were already forgiven. And so too the fourth: it
is now the first as the third was already forgiven. And so too until the end
"When is this the case? For an individual, as it is stated '[[G-d] will
redeem [man's] soul from going to destruction]... Lo, all of this G-d will
do twice, thrice for a man' (Job 33:28-9). But regarding an assembly, they
overlook (lit., 'let hang') the first, second and third sin, as it is
stated, 'On three sins of Israel [I will turn back punishment], but on the
fourth I will not turn it back' (Amos 2:6)." And when the [angels] consider
them, they consider them in the same manner [but] from the fourth [sin] and
(The second half of this law will be translated next week.)
In this law, the Rambam continues to discuss G-d's judgment of man. As
Scripture teaches us, G-d strongly inclines His judgment towards compassion,
but only to a point. He is willing to disregard the first few times we sin,
but neither are our sins entirely forgotten. If even after Divine mercy we
are found wanting, all our sins will be reckoned in full measure.
We can well appreciate that although G-d's judgment is basically an act of
Divine mercy, there is a logic to it as well. The first one or two times a
person commits a sin, it was likely not that considered and premeditated.
The person was probably caught off guard. He didn't realize what he was
getting into, or just how evil and reprehensible the act is. And G-d can
easily dismiss such sins as unintentional and inadvertent.
We occasionally hear of a person running for an elected position, who when
challenged regarding his past personal behavior, would employ such language
as that he "experimented" with drugs or alcohol for a short time during his
impressionable youth. That might be plausible if his experiment lasted one
or two times -- after which he quickly learned the folly of such behavior.
But when such a person "experimented" hundreds of times over a surprisingly
long period of time, such excuses of semantics clearly wear thin. The person
had clearly abandoned all semblance of propriety.
The same is true regarding the Divine judgment. Acts we do when caught off
guard are at times excusable. We didn't *really* know what we were getting
into. Satan trapped us unsuspecting; we didn't realize what was happening to
us until it was too late. And even if later we become hopelessly ensnared in
Satan's web, the first two times can still be viewed as unintentional.
The Rambam then extends this principle. If the first two times I committed a
particular sin are discounted, then the *third* times becomes the tentative
first. And as a first infraction, it too can be discounted: I was only a
first-time offender. And at that point, my *fourth* sin becomes my first --
and G-d can slowly but steadily forgive every one of my sins.
To be honest, the logic here is beyond me. It almost seems a Divine game,
G-d's way of pretending we are much better than we truly are and forgiving
us entirely. I'm sure there is more true justice to G-d's clever little
scheme here, but I personally cannot come up with a ready explanation.
Happily, G-d's ways are beyond our ken not only in the inexplicable justice
He metes out upon mankind. We at times also cannot understand the wonderful
compassion He bestows upon His beloved children.
The Rambam then goes on to qualify this principle by stating that G-d
overlooks our earlier sins only if we are 50% good or better. If, however, a
person is majority wicked -- even after discounting his earlier sins, G-d
will throw the book at him, so to speak. Nothing will be ignored.
This actually appears much more logical. If you "experimented" with a sin
once or twice, it was a bout of temporary insanity -- as the Talmud says it,
a person does not sin unless a spirit of "madness" enters him (Sotah 3a). No
thinking, rational person would trade the World to Come for a few moments of
pleasure in this world -- the equivalent of spending $50,000 for a can of
coke. (I'm not so old, but to this day it's hard for me to shell out
anything over 50c for a can of carbonated garbage -- and 25c sounds much
more like it.)
If, however, you kept up the insanity, you have demonstrated that you really
meant your evil behavior (provided, you're a majority-wicked person who
really does mean it). It was no unconsidered slip, as it might have at first
appeared. It was deliberate behavior. You knew full well how despicable this
action is, yet you allowed yourself to become hooked and you kept up. Thus
even the first two times must be considered wanton. Your eventual trek down
the road of evil demonstrates clearly that your intentions were far from
We now arrive at the Rambam's final point, that if an entire community sins
in a certain way, G-d will overlook their third infraction as well, only
judging them from the fourth.
There are two possible explanations for this. The first is simply because of
the strength of the community. G-d is not so quick to destroy an entire
assembly of the L-rd, even if they have slipped precipitously. As bad as
they are now behaving, G-d never entirely forgets His covenant with them.
A second idea is that the very fact that an entire community is sinning is
cause for Divine mercy. If "everyone else" is doing X, it is very hard for
me to resist the trend. All my friends are doing it. I wouldn't want to be
left out or viewed as a nerd by being different. Thus, when wicked behavior
is widespread and "in", G-d goes somewhat easier on the individual
perpetrators. My act was even less considered. I was just "going with the
flow," engaging in behavior my society considers acceptable.
This raises one final interesting thought. The Torah has a precedent for
such a concept. We read in Deuteronomy 13 (vv. 13-19) of the law of a
rebellious city (Ir HaNidachas), in which the majority of its inhabitants
commit idolatry. In such a case, not only are all the perpetrators put to
death (via the court punishment of beheading), but the entire city and
everything in it is destroyed, burnt to the ground, never to be rebuilt.
(Incidentally, as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 112a) makes clear, only those guilty
of idolatry are put to death; not the innocents. However, all the city's
property is destroyed, even that which belonged to the innocents.)
I once heard R. Noah Weinberg OBM, past dean of Aish HaTorah make the following
observation. If an individual commits idolatry, what is his punishment?
Stoning -- considered the most severe of the death sentences. Here, however,
when an entire city became corrupt, the sinners are only punished with
beheading -- considered one of the lesser death sentences (see Mishna
Sanhedrin 7:1). Yet, when an entire city goes bad, the Torah decrees a new
punishment we do not find anywhere else -- that the entire city must be
burnt to the ground. So which is worse -- mass idolatry or individual idolatry?
R. Weinberg explained. On the one hand, the idolatrous city is less sinful.
"Everyone else" is doing it -- so I just went along. Thus, the individuals
within the city are judged more lightly -- given a lesser death sentence.
However, at the same time, the Torah delivers a firm and unequivocal
message. When an *entire society* goes bad, it must be wiped off the face of
the earth. An evil society, which condones wickedness, must not exist. A
society which permits evil and considers aberrant behavior acceptable cannot
be countenanced by G-d even a moment. The individuals within it are
certainly less culpable. But a society which has so lowered its standards as
to give wickedness free expression and free reign must be destroyed and
I won't belabor this point, but this tragically is a very relevant message
in the decadent societies in which most of us live. It is one thing to sin;
it's quite another to openly declare sinfulness as an acceptable way of
life. I honestly do not know how G-d suffers mankind's existence today. Yet
let us just do our small part in bringing G-d's world to the greatness for
which it is destined.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org