Taking Responsibility – Part I
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt"l, in his classic Sichos Mussar, makes a striking statement: The true measure of a man is the degree to which he accepts responsibility for his actions. That quality of taking responsibility (achrayus) has several aspects. The first involves not blaming others for the consequences of one's decisions.
The tendency to blame goes back to the beginning of time. Adam attributed his eating of the forbidden fruit to Chava: "The woman whom You gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree, and I ate" (Bereishis 3:12). And Kayin blamed Hashem for his murder of Hevel, with all manner of excuses: You created the yetzer hara; You could have protected Hevel from me; If You had accepted my offering with the same favor that You accepted his, I would not have become jealous and killed him (Tanchuma Bereishis 9).
Yehudah merited kingship because he took responsibility for his deeds and words. He acknowledged the signet ring, wrap, and staff sent to him by Tamar as his own. Later he argued with his brothers as to whether his promise to Yaakov Avinu to ensure Binyamin's safe return required him to substitute himself for Binyamin as a prisoner, with Yehudah adopting the strictest possible interpretation of his surety.
Yehudah's descendant Dovid Hamelech received the kingship from Shaul precisely because the latter showed himself unworthy by virtue of his refusal to accept responsibility for his failure to slay Agag, as Shmuel had commanded, blaming instead the "voice" of the people. Dovid Hamelech sinned no less grievously than Shaul, but did not lose kingship on that account because he immediately accepted responsibility for his sins, when confronted by the prophet Natan.
THERE IS A SECOND SENSE in which Rabbi Shmuelevitz uses the term responsibility: devoting oneself not just to one's own betterment, whether material or spiritual, but to the betterment of Klal Yisrael and every individual Jew comprising that Klal. One who accepts the responsibility for Klal Yisrael is imbued with a special, more refined, ability to judge the needs of the nation. "[He] will not need to judge by what his eyes see nor decide by what his ears hear" (Yeshaya 11:3), says the Navi of the greatest of all kings, Melech HaMashiach.
How, Reb Chaim asks, could Esther have declared a three-day fast on the Jews of Shushan, especially one that would involve not fulfilling the mitzvah of eating matzah on the first night of Pesach? And if such a fast was required, should it not have been Mordechai, the gadol hador, who declared the fast. He answers that at that moment a feeling of responsibility for Klal Yisrael beat so strongly in Esther that she was raised above all the chachamim of her generation. That is what the Megillah means when it says, "And Esther cloaked [herself] in kingship" (Megillas Esther 5:1). Just as the king bears responsibility for every single member of Klal Yisrael, so was Esther, at that moment, elevated to the level of kingship.
In our day, that feeling of responsibility for Klal Yisrael and every member of it is best exemplified by our gedolim. The very term gadol is a measure of their sense of responsibility for the needs of the Klal.
One's gadlus is measured precisely by how many people are encompassed in his "I". The more people for whom one feels responsible, as he feels responsible for himself, the greater he is. Thus Hashem is described as "HaGadol" because His purview encompasses every created thing. And to the extent that we concern ourselves with others, we grow larger and more G-d-like.
Though it is the gedolim of our time who most exemplify the quality of taking responsibility for the needs of Klal Yisrael, that does not mean that the rest of us can absolve ourselves of responsibility for Klal Yisrael, secure in the knowledge that the gedolim have undertaken that responsibility and are imbued with the special level of Divine insight that goes with its acceptance.
For one thing, the obligation to grow by taking on ever greater levels of responsibility is incumbent upon each of us. Only after the creation of Adam (Man) did Hashem survey His creation and find it "tov me'od (very good)" not just tov. The term me'od lacks specificity; it is not a particular measure. Adam (א-ד-ם and me'od (מ-א-ד) are formed from the same Hebrew letters to teach us that Man has no defined limits, only a potential – and with that potential an obligation -- to continually grow. And that he does, Rabbi Shmuelevitz teaches us, primarily by continually expanding the realm of those within the realm of his concern.
Quite apart from our individual obligation to continually grow, there is another reason that we cannot abdicate all personal responsibility and simply rely on our gedolim: They simply cannot do everything by themselves. Indeed precisely because they have taken responsibility for everything that takes place in Klal Yisrael are they unable to devote their energies and thoughts exclusively to the major problems facing Klal Yisrael.
Every machlokes in any yeshiva or major communal institution, for instance, inevitably reaches their doors. Only they command the requisite respect to offer any hope of finding a solution. These issues are urgent; they must be solved or they will fester and eat away at major institutions. Our gedolim have no choice but to devote themselves to resolving them.
But, as a consequence, they are not able to focus on other problems and issues that have an impact on far more Jews and greater consequences for the long-term health of Klal Yisrael. The latter type of issues – e.g., parnassah, housing, shidduchim, drop-outs from the community -- are ongoing; intractable, in the sense that they can have no definite resolution, as in a din Torah; involve many separate strands,; and require a great deal of thought, study, and experimentation to discover the means to ameliorate, if not eliminate entirely, their tragic impact.
None of us can possibly provide the solution to even one of these problems, much less all of them. But each of us, guided by the gedolim, can focus on a particular aspect of some problem affecting Klal Yisrael and do what he or she can to improve the situation.