I have bad news and good news.
The bad news is that we are living in a dor yasom, an orphan generation that is bereft of gedolim (great men of Torah and piety) to lead us. This is not a criticism of the rabbis who have remained uncorrupted and are fulfilling their individual callings with valor. It is a statement of fact that we lack the towering giants of even a generation ago who carried the nation on their shoulders, like parents carrying their children.
I don’t believe there was ever a time in Jewish history with such a void. There is no one we can go to with questions or problems and be confident not only that will he give us the correct answer, but that Hashem is speaking through him. Those of us who seek the truth don’t have a clear address anymore. We have to shop around and muddle through. If we have a rabbi in our lives who is generally knowledgeable, caring, and uncorrupted, who can help us most of the time, we are extremely fortunate. But we have no gedolim to carry the mantle of those who came before them.
The good news is that this is one of the signs that our redemption is imminent. Not only that, but when it comes to saving us in times of trouble, gedolim don’t matter nearly as much as we tend to think.
You read that right, and no, I didn’t become a heretic. Allow me to explain.
We have a long tradition of gedolim rescuing their flock with prayers and guidance. Moshe Rabbeinu is the best, most obvious example, having repeatedly interceded on behalf of the Jews in the desert after their sins brought them to the brink of annihilation. Subsequent gedolim inherited this power and responsibility, albeit on a diminished level from that of Moshe.
In addition to interceding in times of judgment, gedolim bring blessing and protection to their generation. The entire world was sustained in the merit of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, while he subsisted on a small measure of carob from week to week (Brachos 17B). Chapter three of Ta’anis is replete with examples of tzaddikim ending droughts with their prayers or signs of mourning. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stated that the world could not firmly exist without thirty tzaddikim like Avraham, and that he alone could protect his generation (Succah 45B, Bereishis Rabba 35:3; see commentaries for much discussion).
He further boasted that he could absolve the world of the sins it accumulated during his lifetime. Rashi explains: In my merit I can bear all their sins and absolve them from judgment. Sefer Chasidim further explains that the suffering he experienced when he and his son, Rabbi Elazar, were forced to hide in a cave for twelve years would be sufficient to absolve the wicked of the punishment due them.
Obviously there are many deep layers to this, far deeper than my department, but there is a fundamental problem that must be addressed. The Torah is very clear that every person bears individual responsibility for his own sins. Although we inherit both the merits and spiritual baggage of those who came before us (Devarim 5:9-10, 7:9), Hashem judges us one by one (see Devarim 24:16 and commentaries, first Mishna in Rosh Hashana). Ultimately we will all have to stand before the Heavenly Court and face the music individually.
The plot further thickens with the case of Rebbi. During the thirteen years he suffered from a toothache (for spiritual reasons, of course) no woman in Israel died during childbirth or experienced a miscarriage (Kilayim 42A). When Rebbi was finally cured (for spiritual reasons, and without drug companies, of course) Rabbi Chiya lamented the misfortune that was sure to befall childbearing women as a result.
The notion of a holy person carrying away the world’s sins and suffering on their behalf sounds uncomfortably similar to a belief system that is antithetical to Judaism. So what is going on here?
The answer is that both concepts are true. Every individual is judged individually and is responsible for his own actions. No one can wave a magic wand and make his sins disappear; whoever makes the mess has to clean it up himself, either through repentance or punishment. At the same time, righteous people can bear suffering that would befall others – but not the way Christians distorted the concept.
This can best be understood with a simple analogy. Every individual has a personal account with Hashem, which we can liken to a bank account. When we do something good, we deposit a merit into the account. When we do the opposite, God forbid, we withdraw from the account. Good deeds and sins do not cancel each other out, of course; if a person does one of each, he will be rewarded for the good deed and punished for the sin. However, the overall balance of one’s spiritual bank account, his spiritual standing, is determined by placing all his deeds on a scale and seeing which side carries more weight.
Every individual has this type of account, and it is his alone to manage.
But there are other accounts that he is responsible for. These are joint accounts, which belong to all the societies of which he is a member: his city, his nation, the entire world. As these accounts have numerous co-signers, his share in the account and his influence over it are very limited. Nevertheless, everything he does has a spiritual effect on the world around him. When he does something good, he deposits a merit into these accounts, and when he does a sin, he negatively affects the spiritual balance of the entire group.
When God judges society, it is these accounts that He examines. What is the overall spiritual standing of the society, based on the collective merits and demerits of all its members? When the overall spiritual health of the society is strong, Hashem will bless the society, and even the less-deserving members will benefit. When the reverse is true, even the more righteous members will suffer because of the rest of the group. When there is a drought, for example, there is a drought for everyone. When it rains, everyone enjoys the blessing.
Individuals with exceptional performance one way or the other may receive special treatment, but overall the society is judged collectively. Classroom discipline operates the same way. Some children whine that it is unfair when the entire class is punished (though they never refuse to participate when the entire class is rewarded) but this is how society has to work. If we are to enjoy the benefits of living in a society with other people, we must bear some responsibility for the society as well.
One of the clearest examples of this from Tanach is when “approximately” thirty-six Jews fell in battle following the sin of Achan (Yehoshua chapter 7). Chazal expound that only a single Jew, Yair ben Menashe, fell in battle (Sanhedrin 44A). Either way, why should other people die because of Achan’s sin?
The answer is that all Jews are guarantors for one another (כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה). The parameters and ramifications of this are the subject of much discussion, but on a fundamental level this should no longer be difficult to understand.
Until Achan sinned, the Jewish people were collectively worthy of the highest level of protection from Hashem. It was unfathomable that even a single Jew would fall in battle. Achan’s sin negatively impacted the national account enough to remove this highest level of protection. The entire nation was now more vulnerable to ordinary dangers. Yair was not punished for Achan’s sin. He fell due to the diminished spiritual protection over the entire nation. (I elaborate more on this in my Dvar Torah on Nitzavim in Keser Chananya.)
So how do gedolim factor into this?
Like everyone else, gedolim have personal accounts which are theirs alone. At the same time, they too are members of the various joint accounts. Unlike most co-signers, however, they are constantly depositing merits into the account, especially powerful merits. The quantity and magnitude of their deposits has a tremendous impact on the overall spiritual health of society, far more than the proportional impact of an average member.
This is why entire cities can be protected in the merit of a gadol, and when that gadol moves away or passes from this world, they lose that protection (see Bereishis 28:10, Rashi). One clear example of this from the Torah is with Aharon HaKohen. When he died, the clouds that protected the entire Jewish people in his merit went away, at least temporarily.
But gedolim can protect their societies in another way. When, God forbid, the overall spiritual health of their society sinks to a dangerous point, when the joint bank account is in overdraft despite the contributions of the gadol, the debt must be collected. As Rabbi Chinina bar Papa taught, Hashem doesn’t collect from a nation until their debts reach a certain measure (Sotah 9A, based on Yeshaya 27:8).
There are several ways this can happen. One is for the overall spiritual protection of the society to be diminished, as in the case of Achan, after which tragedies will naturally occur. Another is for the entire society to be punished in a specific way, such as with a drought. The ultimate purpose of these punishments is to awaken the people to generally repent and to root out a specific sin that might be the primary cause of the problem (which was the case with Achan and the famine in the times of David). Alternatively – and hopefully concurrently – the people can increase their collective merits to restore a positive balance to the account and redeem them from punishment.
But there is another way the debt can sometimes be collected. A gadol can suffer on behalf of everyone else.
After all, if a joint account is in overdraft, the bank doesn’t care who pays the debt, so long as the debt is paid. It doesn’t matter if everyone else is responsible for the debt, but one wealthy benefactor bears the burden on their behalf. It isn’t the most equitable solution, but once the debt is paid, the account is restored to good standing.
This explains why no women miscarried or died in childbirth while Rebbi was suffering. Even though he was being punished for his own slight imperfection, his suffering carried away much of the collective debt of his generation, bringing special protection to the people. This also explains why gedolim were able to end droughts with relatively minimal displays of mourning. The trivial discomfort of a gadol – who should never be discomfited in any way – cleans away massive spiritual debts from the rest of the nation.
Righteous people cannot carry away sins, but they can bear a greater share of the burden for society’s collective debt.
So why do I write in the beginning that gedolim don’t matter nearly as much as we tend to think?
First of all, everyone has the ability to make great contributions to the joint account. Gedolim do it more frequently and in greater amounts than most people – that’s what makes them gedolim – but this opportunity is available to all of us. In fact, we should consider it our responsibility to one another and to the gedolim who bear a greater share of the burden to pull our own weight.
Among the many stories in chapter three of Ta’anis about the merits of gedolim protecting their cities, we find cities being saved from terrible punishments in the merit of ordinary people performing seemingly trivial acts of kindness (Ta’anis 21B). Every person has the ability to move the collective spiritual needle in extraordinary ways. We should not wait for gedolim to do this on our behalf – nor hang our heads when there aren’t any. As Chazal taught us, in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (Avos 2:5).
The fact that we should not depend on gedolim to bail us out, and to instead take greater responsibility for our society, is illustrated by Rabbi Chanina. The Gemara in Yerushalmi Ta’anis 3:4 relates that there was once a plague in Tzipori, but it did not enter Rabbi Chanina’s neighborhood. The people of Tzipori complained that “this old man” was sitting in peace in his neighborhood, while the entire province was suffering, and he wasn’t praying for them.
Rabbi Chanina went and expounded before them that in the times of Moshe there was one Zimri (a particularly immoral person) and 24,000 people died in a plague, despite Moshe’s merits. In Tzipori there were many people like Zimri, so why were they complaining about him?
Another time there was a drought. The people of Tzipori declared a fast, but rain still did not fall (such a thing is supposed to surprise and disappoint us; spiritual solutions are not supposed to fail). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi declared a fast in the south, and rain fell there. The people of Tzipori then said that Rabbi Yehoshua brought rain for his people in the south, but Rabbi Chanina was holding back rain from his people in Tzipori.
The next time they needed to fast for a drought, Rabbi Chanina sent for Rabbi Yehoshua and asked him to join them in the fast. They went out together, and still the rain did not come. Rabbi Chanina then told the people the following:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi does not bring rain for the people of the south, and Rabbi Chanina does not stop the rain from the people of Tzipori. Rather, the people of the south have soft hearts; they hear words of Torah and are humbled. The people of Tzipori have hardened hearts; they hear words of Torah and are not humbled.”
In spite of this harsh rebuke, Rabbi Chanina then prayed for the people and brought rain, though he subsequently regretted it and vowed never to do so again if they were not worthy.
Rabbi Ze’ura also said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: “What can gedolim of the generation do, being that the public is judged only according to the majority?” This is derived from the fact that Hashem didn’t speak with Moshe all thirty-eight years that He was angry at the Jews in the desert.
Rabbi Yaacov bar Idi then said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi the very same thing, except he derived it from the fact that Eliyahu was only answered on Mount Carmel in the merit of the people.
It is clear from here that gedolim have tremendous power to intercede on behalf of the people, to protect their surroundings in their merits, and to bear a greater share of the collective suffering. At the same time, however, their ability to protect society is limited by the overall spiritual health of the society. There are no freebies or government bailouts, nor can gedolim carry away people’s sins. If a society is full of immoral people with hardened hearts, who do not submit to the Torah, there is nothing a gadol can do for them. A gadol can only assist individuals and societies that are worthy vessels to receive blessings.
So yes, it matters a great deal that we do not have gedolim. As the same time, we should not be overly dependent on gedolim to carry our weight. A gadol is a shepherd to guide us, not a substitute for the work we are supposed to do. He puts more merits into the collective pot, but we must contribute our share as well. Ultimately, it is the overall standing of the society that makes the greatest difference.
Each of us has the ability and the responsibility to increase our merits and do more for those around us. Each of us has the ability to make massive contributions to the our joint account, and move the spiritual needle accordingly.
So yes, we should pray for Hashem to restore shepherds to us. In the meantime, however, we should not despair for lack of gedolim.
In a place where there are no great people, strive to be great.
Rabbi Chananya Weissman is the author of hundreds of articles and seven books on a wide range of subjects. He is also the director and producer of a documentary, Single Jewish Male, and a series of short films. His work can be found at chananyaweissman.com and rumble.com/c/c-782463. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.