"And Yehoshua ripped his garments and fell on his face in front of Hashem's ark until evening - he and the elders - and they placed dirt on their heads."
The wording of this passage is somewhat concerning. It begins with Yehoshua's personal response, continues with the incidental mention of the elders' inclusion and ends with a collective act of both. Why is Yehoshua presented as the lead figure for part of this experience and as a partner in the rest?
A careful analysis of Yehoshua's plea on behalf of his people sheds lighton this incident. In verse 8, Yehoshua speaks of the Jewish people's fault of retreating from the enemy. He projects that this cowardly behavior will undoubtedly invite all native tribes to attack the Jewish people. Yehoshua begs Hashem not to abandon His people in their great time of need. This plea reveals that Yehoshua sensed a serious disorder in the Jewish people's behavior. Although he had no knowledge of Achan's sin, something was very wrong with them. Their retreat reflected a lack of trust in Hashem and an unjustified confidence in their military ability.
In regards to their overconfidence, Yehoshua accepted the blame himself. He had agreed to the scouts' suggestion and sent only a small brigade to fight the war. Yehoshua mourned over his costly error which ultimately resulted in the loss of thirty - six great Jewish men. However, the problem extended much further than that. The Jewish warriors showed lack of trust in Hashem and retreated at the first sight of real combat. This weakness was not directly linked to Yehoshua but involved the elders as well. If they would have set a perfect example for the Jewish people this complacent attitude would never have developed. Therefore, they felt it necessary to share in the blame and fell on their faces before Hashem.
Yet, there was one more dimension here. Scriptures record Yehoshua's personal act of mourning, a collective supplication and finally a collective placing of dirt on their heads. Because this is mentioned at the end, it seems to represent a new factor. Indeed, our Sages explain that this act was done in order to recall the merit of Avrohom Avinu who humbly considered himself nothing more than dirt. Apparently, this particular quality of Avrohom Avinu was directly related to the plunge at Ay. Avrohom felt that his entire existence was owed to Hashem and that he had absolutely no merit of his own to fall back on.
This dimension belonged more to the elders than to anyone else. It was their responsibility to educate the people and give them the proper perspectives on life. Although the Jewish people were riding high on miracles, they had no right to rely upon their own merit. The elders recognized their shortcoming, and pleaded to Hashem to focus on the potential of the people as children of their paradigm, Avrohom Avinu.
These were the responses of our great leaders who saw themselves at fault for this tragic blow. In truth, a more serious offense was at the root of this tragedy but had not yet been discovered. Although these smaller faults may have contributed to the problem they were certainly insufficient reason for Hashem to respond so harshly to His people. Therefore, Hashem answered Yehoshua's plea and revealed the true catalyst to this downfall. We could say that their collective responsibility for Achan's act was based on these faults however the main issue was undoubtedly his violation of the ban.
To paraphrase our Sages' words (see Rashi to Vayikra 4:22) "How fortunate are the Jewish people to have leaders of such caliber, who admit to even their most trivial of offenses!!"
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