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Kol Nidre 2019/5780

10/17/2019 04:11:46 PM

Oct17

Rabbi Rachel M. Maimin

The Ethics of Responsibility

I don’t know about you,
but I’m feeling tired.
And not just the kind of tired
from being busy
and having too many things on my to-do list,
more to accomplish than I can in a day.
“Not just “sleepy,”
but “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and fed up”;
drained, disillusioned, and disenchanted”;
the opposite of “inspired, stimulated,
motivated and enthused.””

I mean the tiredness that runs us down
and wears us out:
the [world-weariness] of our times.”[i]
I’m feeling exhausted, and fed up, and overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed by the vastness of the world’s problems,
the incredible number of awful things
occurring each day –
by nature and by human nature,
by everyday acts of negligence,
and by everyday acts of malevolence.
And, I confess, sometimes I feel stuck.
Sometimes I think,
maybe I should just retreat into myself.
Sometimes I don’t even know where to begin.
Our Torah clearly teaches us,
“You shall not stand idly by
the blood of your neighbor.”[ii]
But in a world where our networks are ever-expanding,
how exactly are we to determine
who is our neighbor,
and how to stand up for them?

Wouldn’t it be so much easier
if we could just hold ourselves to these standards,
simply worrying about ourselves,
without a need to do more?

Al cheit shechatati l’fanecha
For any wrongs that I have done,
whether knowingly or unknowingly,
directly to another person,
or to myself,
I am responsible –
responsible for taking action
and for repairing what has been broken.

True, there are days when even this task
can be overwhelming.

But then again,
these are not the words we use
in our confession.
“We confess in the plural…
We have sinned.
We assume
that we [have each committed]…
each and every possible sin
in order to force ourselves
to be as aggressive as possible
in both identifying our own faults,
and in addressing the problems in our society.
If we wait to find the person
who is truly, directly responsible for…
[the world’s problems],
and then wait for them to fix [them],
we’ll be waiting for quite a long time, indeed. ”[iii]

Looking around at the brokenness of his time,
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught,
“It became quite clear to me
that while our eyes are witness
to the callousness and cruelty of man,
our heart tries to obliterate the memories,
to calm the nerves,
and to silence our conscience.”[iv]
He too understood the temptation
to take our broken and overwhelmed hearts
and retreat inward,
saying, ‘Not my problem,’
or ‘I am not to blame for this wrong,’
or ‘I am too small to make any real change.’
At these moments in particular,
Rabbi Heschel reminds us
to turn our minds and our souls toward our prophets –
“the world’s first social critic[s]
who ‘[spoke] truth to power’
on the specific mandate of God”[v] –
our prophets,
those biblical radicals
who have advised us for millennia
that we ought to strive for more,
that even when wholeness or healing
may seem out of reach,
we are commanded to try something –
to take at least one small step,
and then another, and then another,
that we may not simply bury our heads in the sand
and ignore the world around us.

In the words of our prophet Isaiah,
“Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
defend the cause of the widow.”[vi]

And in Heschel’s own words,
“The more deeply immersed I became
in the thinking of the prophets,
the more powerfully it became clear to me
what the lives of the prophets sought to convey:
that morally speaking
there is no limit to the concern one must feel
for the suffering of human beings.
It also became clear to me
that in regard to cruelties committed
in the name of a free society,
some are guilty,
all are responsible.”[vii]

Some are guilty, all are responsible.
Hearing this idea
could send us spiraling back into ourselves,
back into the overwhelm and paralysis
brought on by the constant news alerts
assaulting our ears and our souls.
But I actually believe
that this message of moral responsibility
can also be a message of hope.
Why hope?
Because it is a reminder to us that,
even when there is so much wrongdoing in the world,
so much guilt –
we can take responsibility and make change –
that we actually have the capacity
to bring more light and more good
into this broken world of ours.

True, “there are no logical grounds
to believe that tomorrow will be better than today.”
But when we hold onto hope,
we choose to take an active role in our world,
to believe, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers,
“that the universe is not blind to our dreams,
deaf to our prayers;
that we are not alone;
that we are here because someone willed us to be
and that our very existence is testament
to the creative force of love.”
As he continues,
“The human story –
the same facts,
the same dramatis personae,
the same sequence of events –
can be told many ways...
Hope and tragedy do not differ about facts
but about interpretation and expectation.
But they make a moral difference.
Those who hope, strive.
Those who are disillusioned, accept.
In that respect,
they are self-fulfilling prophecies.

A morality of hope lives in the belief
that we can change the world for the better…
[This does not mean that we need become optimists.]
Optimism and hope are not the same.
Optimism is the belief
that the world is changing for the better;
hope is the belief that, together,
we can make the world better.
Optimism is a passive value,
hope an active one.
It needs no courage to be an optimist,
but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.”[viii]
Judaism may not be a religion of optimism
(one only needs repeat the age-old opening
to every holiday meal:
“They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat!”
to remember this),
but it is a religion of hope –
and of communal and individual responsibility.

We cannot simply
wait for someone else to solve the world’s problems,
or wait for things to get better.
We may not be literally guilty,
we may not be the ones causing
the many real issues of our world,
we may not be the ones creating
the problems of homelessness, and hunger, and racism,
and gun violence, and xenophobia.
“We have grown used to
delegating such responsibilities to governments,
in return for which we pay taxes –
substituting politics for ethics,
law for moral obligation,
and impersonal agencies for personal involvement.”[ix]
But this is not taking responsibility.
This is outsourcing responsibility.[x]
And this is becoming more and more difficult to do,
at a time when we see
the very individuals and agencies
whose job it is
to take care of their citizens and residents
instead abscond from their responsibilities,
and worse yet,
cause the very problems
that they are supposed to be protecting against.

And here’s the thing:
none of this is new.
None of this is unique to us,
unique to our contemporary world.
In the 15th century,
Spanish-Jewish philosopher Isaac Arama
reflected on these exact issues.
His understanding can be summarized as follows:
“Where crimes are committed by individuals,
they alone bear the guilt,
but where the law itself permits their behavior,
or where judges turn a blind eye to it,
wrongs are ‘transformed from the sins of individuals
to the sins of the community as a whole.’
…Laws – even those made by a monarch –
involve the tacit consent of the people.
It is therefore no excuse to say,
‘I did no wrong;
the sin belongs to someone else.’
Merely being part of a society
and failing to protest its wrongdoing
renders one liable for part of the guilt –
the guilt of the bystander,
one who could have acted but did not.”[xi]

We may not be directly guilty,
but we are indeed directly responsible.
But how is it that we are responsible?
What is it that connects us to the other,
to the other who is suffering across the street,
or across our city,
or across our country,
or across our world?
Our connection can be found literally
within the word “responsibility.”
In Hebrew, responsibility is achrayut.
What is so fascinating about this word
is that its root, acher,
means an ‘other’.
At the heart of achrayut,
at the heart of responsibility,
is the other.
Because “responsibility is not something
that comes from within…
[it] is always a response to something
or someone outside us.”[xii]
Achrayut “refers to your moral commitment to the other
in a given situation –
not just to answer to the other for your actions,
but also to make the other’s needs and concerns
your own.”[xiii]
Responsibility IS our ability to respond to the other.

The very first question that God asks to humankind
is one directed at Adam and Eve.
Ayekah?[xiv]
Where are you?
Where are you? –
God asks Adam and Eve.
Surely, God knows where they are.
This must then be a deeper question,
a question probing
the essence of who these first people are.
Among the first tasks that God puts to Adam and Eve
is to respond to this question.
Ayekah? Where are you?
In creating Adam and Eve,
God gave them life and freedom,
and with it,
the obligation to respond to the other,
the obligation to an ethic of responsibility.
“The responsible life is one that responds.”[xv]
And what gives us “the right or duty to intervene,”[xvi]
to involve ourselves in the world’s problems?
With that call,
Ayekah?,
God gave to us both this right and this duty.
God created us,
out of love,
in the Divine image,
and so it is now our turn to be co-creators of this world,
to be God’s partners in mending our world.
This also means that not just you and I
are made in the image of God.
Every single person on this planet
contains within them a spark of the Divine.
Every single person.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes
about the implications
of taking this idea seriously.
“I used to think
that the most important line in the Bible was
“Love your neighbour as yourself”.
Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour
because he or she is usually quite like yourself.
What is hard is to love the stranger,
one whose colour, culture or creed
is different from yours.
That is why the command,
“Love the stranger because you were once strangers”,
resonates so often throughout the Bible.
It is summoning us now.
…Wars that cannot be won by weapons
can sometimes be won
by the sheer power
of acts of humanitarian generosity
to inspire the young
to choose the way of peace
instead of holy war.”[xvii]

We know what it means to be the stranger,
because we were strangers.
This experience is ours,
is part of our collective past,
as we remind ourselves every year at Passover.
We wandered.
We were strangers.
And because of this,
our tradition teaches,
we are obligated to intervene,
to follow in the footsteps of our prophetic ancestors,
to speak truth to power,
to stand up for equal justice
for every single made-in-the-image-of-God person
in this world.

But even knowing this,

knowing in our heads that this obligation is ours,
we may find ourselves asking,
Am I,
just one single person,
really capable of making a difference,
of changing things for the better,
of solving the great problems of our world?
I cannot resolve the enormous issue
of racism in this country.
I cannot change its underlying causes,
or the systems that perpetuate it.
I cannot improve education for every student,
cannot overhaul the criminal justice system,
cannot eradicate poverty.
I cannot make life better in the Middle East,
I cannot alone change the immigration policy
in this country,
or ensure that every person in danger
around our world
finds safety and security in a new land.
And yet we are not no one.
We may feel insignificant,
we may feel overwhelmed,
we may feel incapable of changing the world.
But this does not absolve us of responsibility.
As Rabbi Sacks reminds us,
“…Tikkun olam,
mending or perfecting the world
…is something each of us does differently.
It is an expression of the faith
that it is no accident that we are here,
in this time and place,
with these gifts and capacities,
and this opportunity
to make a positive difference to the world.
…Where what I can do meets what needs to be done
there is God’s challenge and our task.”[xviii]

Ayekah? – God calls to us.
Where are you?
And every single one of us has the opportunity to respond:
Hineni.
Here I am.
I’m right here,
ready to heed Your call,
ready to respond to the other.

For,
“There is no life without a task;
no person without a talent;
no place without a fragment of God’s light
waiting to be discovered and redeemed;
no situation without its possibility of sanctification;
no moment without its call.
It may take a lifetime
to learn how to find these things,
but once we learn,
we realize in retrospect
that all it ever took was the ability to listen.
When God calls us,
…God whispers our name –
and the greatest reply,
the reply of [our ancestor] Abraham,
is simply hineni: ‘Here I am’,
ready to heed your call,
to mend a fragment of your all-too-broken world.”[xix]

May we all have “the courage
[to respond to the call of the other],
to take the risk of responsibility,
[to choose hope],
becoming co-authors with God
of the world that ought to be.”[xx]

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May these words be worthy of coming true.


[i] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, “Drained, Disillusioned, and Disenchanted.” https://blog.lawrenceahoffman.com

[ii] Leviticus 19:15

[iii] Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, “The Yetzer of Racism”. https://www.dropbox.com/s/92b9jdydrbzo80y/Racial%20Justice.docx?dl=0

[iv] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement.” in A. J. Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (ed. by Susannah Heschel; Farrar Straus & Giroux), 224-6.

[v] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 167.

[vi] Isaiah 1:17

[vii] Heschel, “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement.”

[viii] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 165-166.

[ix] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 7.

[x] Ideas from Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s blog, “You cannot source out moral

responsibility.” July 10, 2015. https://blog.lawrenceahoffman.com/page/9/

[xi] On p. 121 of To Heal a Fractured World, Sacks summarizes the perspective of Isaac Arama found in Akedat Yitzhak, Genesis, Gate 20 (Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 161-3.

[xii] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 220.

[xiii] Sinclair, Julian. “Achrayut.” The Jewish Chronicle. 28 October 2008. http://www.thejc.com/judaism/jewish-words/achrayut

[xiv] Genesis 3:9

[xv] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 220.

[xvi] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 253.

[xvii] Sacks, Jonathan. “Refugee crisis: ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers’ calls us now.” The Guardian. 5 September 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/06/refugee-crisis-jonathan-sacks-humanitarian-generosity

[xviii] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 72.

[xix] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 262.

[xx] Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 273.

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Sh'vat 5780