How One Man’s Sin Led to the Death of 36 Soldiers
We are living through the greatest time of trouble experienced by Yaakov in over 75 years (and in certain respects, the most dangerous time that we have ever experienced on a global level), as it is written (Yirmeyahu 30:7): הוֹי כִּי גָדוֹל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא מֵאַיִן כָּמֹהוּ וְעֵת־צָרָה הִיא לְיַעֲקֹב וּמִמֶּנָּה יִוָּשֵׁעַ (Oy, for that day is great! None is similar to it, a time of distress for Yaakov! But he will be saved out of it). If this is indeed the case, and we think it is, we have two options before us. The first is that these days would be considered a fulfillment of the war of Gog and Magog, to be followed immediately by the revelation of Mashiach. The second is that we will lose this opportunity, history will drag on, and in its wake will come more distress and more trouble for the Jewish People, G-d forbid. Knowing that every Jew has a heart with a spark of supreme kedushah from the Ein Sof, we should all strive to do all we can to facilitate the first option.
That being the case, let’s ask ourselves an important question. Is it possible to make personal choices regarding one’s level of tzniut, even in the privacy of one’s home, without impacting the lives of one’s fellows Jews in public? On the one hand, tzniut is a very personal matter, and most of us wouldn’t want to live in a place where it’s outward forms are dictated or controlled by others. Yet, on the other hand, we are taught that כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה [kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh, all Jews are responsible for each other], this being derived from the phrase וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ־בְּאָחִיו (They shall stumble over each other) in Vayikra 26:37 (see Sanhedrin 27b and Shevuot 39a). In other words, one will come to sin because of the sin of another.
In this article, we’d like to take a closer look at the intersection between these two important forces, tzniut and kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh, with a informative example from Sefer Yehoshua.
After B’nei Yisrael crossed the Yarden and entered the land for the first time as a nation, the city of Yericho lay before them. We know the story well. But let’s focus our attention on one aspect of the story that may not always get the attention it deserves. Yehoshua told the people that the entire city and everything in it (except for Rachav, her family and their possessions) was to be considered חֵרֶם (cherem, i.e. destroyed, dedicated, abominable]. In practice, this meant that everything in the city that would burn easily was to be destroyed by fire, but the gold, silver, brass and iron were to be placed in the treasury of Hashem. Nothing was permitted for personal use (Yehoshua 6:18): וְרַק־אַתֶּם שִׁמְרוּ מִן־הַחֵרֶם פֶּן־תַּחֲרִימוּ וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִן־הַחֵרֶם וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת־מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחֵרֶם וַעֲכַרְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ (Just guard yourselves from the cherem, lest you cause yourselves to be made cherem, and you take from the cherem and make the camp of Yisrael cherem and you trouble it). We can read through the account of the miraculous collapse of the walls of the city and the big victory. Everything sounds like a resounding success (6:24): וְהָעִיר שָׂרְפוּ בָאֵשׁ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּהּ רַק הַכֶּסֶף וְהַזָּהָב וּכְלֵי הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְהַבַּרְזֶל נָתְנוּ אוֹצַר בֵּית־יְיָ (And they burned the city with fire, and everything that was in it, only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of copper and iron they placed in the treasury of the House of Hashem).
However, the victory at Yericho was not quite picture perfect. One man misappropriated some of the property that was in Yericho and stole it (7:1): וַיִּמְעֲלוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מַעַל בַּחֵרֶם וַיִּקַּח עָכָן בֶּן־כַּרְמִי בֶן־זַבְדִּי בֶן־זֶרַח לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה מִן־הַחֵרֶם וַיִּחַר־אַף יְהֹוָה בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (And B’nei Yisrael committed the sin of me’ilah [misappropriating property dedicated to Hashem] with regard to the cherem, and Achan ben Karmi ben Zavdi ben Zerach, from the tribe of Yehudah, took from the cherem, and the anger of Hashem flared against B’nei Yisrael). The question is, If only one man committed the sin of me’ilah, why does the verse state that the whole nation committed me’ilah?
One answer could be that kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh. But one could bring up an argument and say that the statement ‘B’nei Yisrael committed the sin of me’ilah‘ just reflected a technical assessment of the situation with no real practical ramifications. Let’s explore this question and see what we can learn.
The next city targeted by the Israelis was Ha-Ai. Yehoshua sent some scouts to investigate the situation on the ground. The scouts returned and reported their findings: no need to send a large army, the city could be captured easily with only two or three thousand men. Yehoshua did as he was advised, but a catastrophe took place. The army turned their backs and fled from the men of Ha-Ai. Not only did they not capture the city, running away in panic, but an even greater tragedy took place (7:5): וַיַּכּוּ מֵהֶם אַנְשֵׁי הָעַי כִּשְׁלֹשִׁים וְשִׁשָּׁה אִישׁ וַיִּרְדְּפוּם לִפְנֵי הַשַּׁעַר עַד־הַשְּׁבָרִים וַיַּכּוּם בַּמּוֹרָד וַיִּמַּס לְבַב־הָעָם וַיְהִי לְמָיִם (And the men of Ha-Ai struck them down, about thirty-six men, and they chased them from the gate to Shevarim, and they struck them down on the descent, and the heart of the nation melted away and became like water).
Just a minute! Only one man sinned by taking property that he wasn’t allowed to take. Then the whole nation gets blamed. And if that’s not bad enough, thirty-six men get killed!? But it’s actually even worse than that because the Radak (R’ David Kimchi) brings down that if it wasn’t for the fact that Avraham had built an altar near Ha-Ai many years earlier, by right they all should have died, and it was only in the merit of Avraham that the tragedy capped at thirty-six deaths! Now seriously, does any of this sound like it’s emanating from a G-d of justice? How can we explain this?
The truth is that we, having grown up among the goyim, have frequently adopted ideas held dear by the goyim without even being aware of it. Now that’s not necessarily a problem. The determining factor should be whether any given idea is antithetical to the Torah or not. But one area where we have definitely been negatively affected by ‘Western’ ideas has to do with nationhood and personal freedom, and in particular, where these two concepts intersect. For example, two ethical or legal principles run through almost all Western systems of law and justice. The first is that each individual of society has the responsibility to do everything that he has agreed to do. This forms the basis of most of their contract law. The second is that everyone is permitted to do whatever he wishes provided that he does not encroach on other persons or their property. This forms the basis of some of their criminal law and tort law. The challenge, of course, is in determining exactly how this encroachment is measured.
Nevertheless, if there is one thing that the story of Achan and the failed conquest of Ha-Ai teaches us is that this second principle is problematic. The Jewish principle is not that one may do whatever one wants provided that one doesn’t encroach on other persons or their property, but rather kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh. In other words, since we are not separate entities but rather members of one body, everything that we do is connected to everyone else in the nation. There is no such thing as a completely independent Jewish action.
But what does any of this have to do with tzniut? Achan was a thief, not an immodest person, right? Let’s see.
The Gemara teaches the following about Achan (Sanhedrin 44a): ואמר רבי אילעא משום רבי יהודה בר מספרתא עכן מושך בערלתו היה כתיב הכא וגם עברו את בריתי וכתיב התם את בריתי הפר (R’ Ila’a said in the name of R’ Yehudah bar Masparta, Achan was someone who drew down his foreskin. It is written here [Yehoshua 7:11], ‘and also, they transgressed My covenant [brit]’, and it is written there [Bereshit 17:14], ‘he has violated My covenant [brit]’). R’ Yehudah bar Masparta focused on what Hashem told Yehoshua after he tore his clothes and fell on his face, after hearing the news that thirty-six men had been killed. Hashem told Yehoshua (7:11): חָטָא יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגַם עָבְרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אוֹתָם וְגַם לָקְחוּ מִן־הַחֵרֶם וְגַם גָּנְבוּ וְגַם כִּחֲשׁוּ וְגַם שָׂמוּ בִכְלֵיהֶם (Yisrael sinned, and also they transgressed My covenant which I commanded them, and also they took from the cherem, and also they stole, and also they deceived, and also they put them into their vessels). What was Hashem referring to when He said that they, i.e. Achan, transgressed Hashem’s covenant which He had commanded them? What is the covenant that Hashem was referring to? It is the covenant of circumcision that Hashem made with Avraham and his descendants after him forever (Bereshit 17:14): וְעָרֵל זָכָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יִמּוֹל אֶת־בְּשַׂר עׇרְלָתוֹ וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי הֵפַר (And the uncircumcised male who doesn’t circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, his soul will be cut off from his people—he has broken My covenant). According to R’ Yehudah bar Masparta, this is what Hashem was referring to when He said that Achan transgressed His covenant. And Rashi explains exactly what Achan did: משך את עור אמתו תמיד עד שנשתרבבה וכיסתה את ראש הגיד כדי שלא יראה מהול (He constantly pulled down the skin of his member until it extended itself and covered the end of his member so that it wouldn’t appear circumcised).
The Gemara also teaches there (Sanhedrin 44a): וכי עשה נבלה בישראל א”ר אבא בר זבדא מלמד שבעל עכן נערה המאורסה כתיב הכא וכי עשה נבלה וכתיב התם כי עשתה נבלה בישראל (‘And because he committed an abominable act in Yisrael’ [Yehoshua 7:15], R’ Abba bar Zavda said that this teaches that Achan had relations with a betrothed young girl. It is written here [7:15], ‘And because he committed an abominable act’ and it is written there [Devarim 22:21], ‘For she committed an abominable act in Yisrael [to play the harlot in her father’s house…]’). Again, if we go back to what Hashem said to Yehoshua, we get more of the context (7:15): וְהָיָה הַנִּלְכָּד בַּחֵרֶם יִשָּׂרֵף בָּאֵשׁ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ כִּי עָבַר אֶת־בְּרִית יְיָ וְכִי־עָשָׂה נְבָלָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל (And the one who seized the cherem shall be burned in the fire, he and all that he has, because he transgressed the covenant of Hashem, and because he committed an abominable act [nevalah] in Yisrael). We have already explained the meaning of how Achan transgressed the covenant of Hashem. What does Hashem come to add by saying that he committed an abominable act? What abominable act? According to R’ Abba bar Zavda, Hashem is hinting at a verse in the Torah where similar wording is used. Describing the end result of a woman who violated her marriage contract and had intimate relations with another man, the Torah says (Devarim 22:21): וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֶת־הַנַּעֲרָ אֶל־פֶּתַח בֵּית־אָבִיהָ וּסְקָלוּהָ אַנְשֵׁי עִירָהּ בָּאֲבָנִים וָמֵתָה כִּי־עָשְׂתָה נְבָלָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לִזְנוֹת בֵּית אָבִיהָ וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ (And they shall bring out the girl to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones, and she shall die because she committed an abominable act [nevalah] in Yisrael to play the harlot in her father’s house: and you shall remove evil from your midst).
This brings us to the point. What really precipitated the tragic death of the thirty-six men who went up to capture Ha-Ai wasn’t just a random act of lust for gold, silver and beautiful clothing. No, it was the culmination of a life obsessed with the material, with the physical—with the carnal lusts of the body. Clearly, Achan was not shomer brit, but was immersed in a life lacking tzniut, even if it was only in private and even if no one else knew about it.
In the end, Achan was executed and all of his property was destroyed. It was such an infamous day that the place where it took place was given a special name, עֵמֶק עָכוֹר [Valley of Achor]. Why was this place called the Valley of Achor instead of the Valley of Achan? The name Achor references Achan since it was his misdeeds which brought this trouble [achor] to Yisrael in the first place as we saw above (Yehoshua 6:18): וְרַק־אַתֶּם שִׁמְרוּ מִן־הַחֵרֶם פֶּן־תַּחֲרִימוּ וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִן־הַחֵרֶם וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת־מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחֵרֶם וַעֲכַרְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ (Just guard yourselves from the cherem, lest you cause yourselves to be made cherem, and you take from the cherem and make the camp of Yisrael cherem and you trouble [achor] it). But there is no reason to despair, for there is always reason to hope. Let us read the beautiful and inspiring words of the prophet Hoshea ben Be’eri, describing a time yet in the future (Hoshea 2:17): וְנָתַתִּי לָהּ אֶת־כְּרָמֶיהָ מִשָּׁם וְאֶת־עֵמֶק עָכוֹר לְפֶתַח תִּקְוָה וְעָנְתָה שָּׁמָּה כִּימֵי נְעוּרֶיהָ וּכְיוֹם עֲלוֹתָהּ מֵאֶרֶץ־מִצְרָיִם (And I [Hashem] will give her [Yisrael] her vineyards from there and the Valley of Achor for an Opening of Hope [Petach Tivkah], and she will respond from there like the days of her youth and like the day when she came up from the Land of Egypt).
It may be that through this very calamitous situation, through the misdeeds of our holy martyrs, through actions that may be compared to the actions of Achan—the sins of promiscuity, self-gratification, and even avodah zarah—the Valley of Achor will become a Petach Tikvah, an opening of hope to a better world. Today doesn’t have to be what yesterday was. And tomorrow can be even better. Tzniut can work the other way just as easily. When it is protected, treasured and embraced wholeheartedly, then it can protect and save the lives of others, especially those fighting the wars of Yisrael.