This is another from the series of Mussar workshops I assist. Unfortunately, it was already printed before I had the privilege to read Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s recent article which, with the synchronicity which always accompanies Torah, talks about responsibility.
Had I read that, I would have begun by discussing our general attitude towards responsibility. Our youth-obsessed culture doesn’t place much more demand on personal responsibility than it expects from children. All too often, we receive the message that responsibilities are burdens which we should try to avoid. Rav Cardozo, in his article (which I highly recommend) proposes that we, instead, see them as compliments, affirmations that we’re sufficiently mature and capable to fulfill them!
Another topic I didn’t cover is the relationship of the אחר in אחריות to time (Achar–later) in addition to person (Acher–the other) which I did discuss. Avot 2:9 (Ethics of the Fathers) poses the challenge of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, “Go out and discover which path (of life) a person should cling to?” One response, from Rabbi Shimon is הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד, HaRoeh Et HaNolad, to see the consequence (what will be born by an action or decision). Responsibility requires taking the long view of things.
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Mussar Midot and Mitzvot
אחריות Achrayut (Responsibility)
פדיון שבויים (Ransoming Captives)
(:פדיון שבוים מצוה רבה היא (בבא בתרא ח
Ransoming a captive is a great mitzva (Baba Batra 8b)
שמות כב:כד) לֹא־תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו נֶשֶׁךְ)
Don’t charge interest (Shemot 22:24)
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Judaism is based on the concepts of relationship and responsibility. Acknowledged or not acknowledged, accepted or rejected, the entire Mitzva system, which Kaballistically is equivalent to the Torah, speaks in the language of חוב (chov), obligation or debt. In a balanced approach to encourage observance while avoiding coercion, it’s up to each of us whether we fulfill a particular mitzva (and this is a very complex discussion in itself) but we’re all assumed to be dedicated to, each in our own way, bringing the world to its ultimate fulfillment. In fact, the common term, both halachic and colloquial, to refer to death is נפטר, niftar, which literally means released from all (mitzva) obligations.
The word we’re using for this month’s midda, אחריות, Achrayut, is based on the three-letter root אחר, acher, which means “other”. The specific type of responsibility we’re discussing is our joining with/for others. This is also summarized in the traditional dictum, כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, kol yisrael eravim zeh l’zeh (Shavuot 39a), all Jews are bound together with each other. When we act responsibly, we benefit all of Israel and when we take responsibility for another we also benefit ourselves. Although sacrifice is often involved, ultimately this is a win-win interaction.
Unfortunately, our long history records too many occurrences of Jews, both prominent and anonymous, undergoing captivity. Our people became a nation during the Egyptian captivity and we’ve undergone a series of national captivities. However, even more frequently Jews have been held captive as individuals. The Talmud (Gittin 58b) tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hannania while visiting Rome to plead for the Jewish people, being shown a young Jewish slave. He refused to leave Rome without him, and this young boy grew up to be the influential Tanna (Mishnaic Sage), Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, a great Kaballist as well the author of the thirteen hermeneutical principles.
Although there were early opinions to not pay excessive ransom because this would only encourage kidnapping, it became widely accepted, especially after the destruction of the Temple, to go to any lengths to redeem Jewish captives since we all have a vital stake in one another. This ruling is still in effect today, reflected in the almost universal approval of religious authorities, even among the ultra-orthodox, to ransom Gilad Shalit at any cost.
Just as we have a responsibility to help our fellows who find themselves in mortal danger, we are also commanded to never take advantage of someone else’s misfortune. Loaning money is considered a high form of Tzedaka, charity, but we must not profit monetarily from this action. (Another underlying principle here is that we should perform mitzvot for the sake of the mitzva and ultimately for the benefit of enhancing devekut (bonding with God), but never for material gain which increases our sense of self/ego, creating a barrier to devekut). We are prohibited three times in the Torah, (Shemot 22:24, Vayikra 25:36-36 and Devarim 23:20-21) from this practice.
The word for interest is נשך, neshech, which more frequently means to bite! It’s impossible to be responsible for someone if we act as a predator towards them. This language seems to indicate that our relationships will tend towards either extreme, supportive or exploitative. By acting with the sense of our responsibilities to others foremost, we build our fellow Jews, ourselves, the Jewish people in general and, dealing the same way with people outside the faith, with all humanity.
The Torah acknowledges that our fortunes in life go both up and down. Not only is society more stable (and, in the long-term, more prosperous) when the fortunate help the unfortunate, the fraternal bond is established and strengthened through mutual help. Another benefit of responsibility towards others is that it helps us reduce our biggest obstacle, our “selfs”, between ourselves and the Infinite.