I decided to write about the middah of taking responsibility this week after reading and listening to reports on the rise in the number of cases of the Delta variant. This news has been, and continues to be, alarming and frightening. I began pondering on my responsibility to my family and my community in light of this information. Also, with the High Holiday season soon upon us, it is an especially good time for each of us to reflect on how we relate to others and what are the consequences of our actions or inactions.
Alan Morinis, the founder of the Mussar Institute, provides a valuable understanding of the term achrayut. “There is debate among scholars whether this word is derived from the Hebrew root achar, which means “after," or acher, which means “other." In other words, is the essence of responsibility being concerned about what comes after (i.e., the consequences of one’s actions) or being sensitive to the other (i.e., attending to the needs of others)?
In discussing the ‘after’ concept, Morinis contends in 'Everyday Holiness' that, “every single thought, word, or deed has its 'after.' We humans are unique among creatures in being able to anticipate consequences to the extent that we can, and as a result, we bear responsibility for our actions.”
Thus, according to this principle that is established in the Mishnah that all human beings are always responsible for the consequences of their actions, whether the action was voluntary or involuntary, deliberate or inadvertent. It is therefore incumbent upon us to take responsibility now for what we will cause to happen “after.”
Another possible root for achrayut is “other." There are many references to this in Jewish teachings. A teaching in the Torah tells us, “when you see your brother’s ox or sheep going astray, do not ignore them; you must return them to him.” This is a fundamental difference between civil and Jewish law. In civil law there is no obligation to return the object. Jewish law, on the other hand, mandates that we must involve ourselves to assist in its return. We have a direct responsibility to others.
This notion of “other” was also mentioned by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his study, The Prophets. “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” In 1963, he proclaimed these words at the National Conference of Religion and Race in Chicago where Dr. King also spoke. This inspired many clergies to participate in the Great March in Washington calling for an end to racism and economic injustice.
It is during times like this that I turn to our Jewish teachings for direction. The rise in infection rates of the Delta variant gets worse each day. So, what is our responsibility to each “other” in light of this data? What should we be pondering as to the consequences of our behavior after we make a decision to mask or not mask, meet in large groups, take a flight, or eat in a restaurant? And, what are the consequences, the “after” of our behaviors?
It is perplexing to think about this especially since we thought that we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and beginning to socialize, travel, and not wear masks. For me, I believe that I need to think about these things before I act, for the consequences of my behavior could be dire. I don’t want the responsibility of possibly causing harm to another. So, I will once again mask and keep social distances. I will only socialize outdoors and limit my travel to car only. I will remain vigilant in my actions until I hear otherwise from doctors and scientists. I will stay knowledgeable.
Each one of us has to make our own decisions and choices in life. This is not always easy. I encourage you to take some time during this High Holiday season to look at your spiritual responsibilities as well collective responsibilities. What is our moral obligation to ourselves, our families, our people and the global community?
In an article by Ruth K. Messinger and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, they discuss the Rabbinic decree that we must be a “light unto the nations.” They state, “We are called upon to act, to do what we can, both at home and abroad, to be that light unto the nations even - or perhaps particularly – in hard times.” As it is so aptly written in Pirkei Avot, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
These times we are living in today are especially filled with strife and difficult decisions. It is in times like these that our weighty responsibilities and moral obligations come into question. I refer back to the teaching of the sage Hillel in Pirkei Avot which continues to resonate with me, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
As a human being and a Jew, I accept responsibility for my actions and take responsibility for the “other." This is the first step toward repentance and reconciliation for what we have said and done. Before we can ask for forgiveness, it’s up to us to own our actions by recognizing what happens “after” and to the “other." I wish you clarity, strength and courage in your journey