When One Person Sins

          What type of God do we have? Is it one “who revisits the sins of the fathers onto the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation”[1] or is it one who asserts “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for his/her own sin.”[2] God at the time of Korach is more similar to the latter rather than the former. When Korach sins, God says “Stand back from the community that I may annihilate them in an instant!”[3] Moses replied, “When one man sins shall you be wrathful with the whole community?”[4] God takes Moses’ side, only punishing those directly involved in the rebellion.

          At times people feel collective punishment is the most effective deterrent for crime. For example, Israel blows up the homes of terrorists as a deterrent against terrorism. On the other hand, as a democratic people, we believe in innocent until proven guilty and that only those who have committed crimes should be punished. Which approach is correct? Like most things, it depends on the situation at hand. If one’s actions could lead to others taking the torch unless a severe punishment is meted out, then perhaps collective punishment makes sense. On the other hand, if one acted independently of others, they need to be punished but not at the expense of others. It’s like the school troublemaker to whom the teacher responds that the entire class must stay in during recess.

          We are not like God and do not know who has sinned and who has not. Therefore, we can only punish those who we know have done wrong and leave the others to God. As Parshat Nitzavim teaches, “Those things which are hidden (we leave) to God, but those things which are revealed are to us and our children (to handle) forever.”[5] Let us learn from Moses to stand up for those who are innocent while handling those who are guilty of wrongdoing.


[1] Exodus 34:7

[2] Deuteronomy 24:16

[3] Numbers 16:21

[4] Numbers 16:22

[5] Deuteronomy 29:28

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