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.

Mishpacha Magazine, Oct. 21 2009

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11 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum,

    You wrote about a number of vexing Orthodox societal problems that “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.”

    Today, is there an effective way that the much-burdened Gedolim can communicate this overall guidance directly and accurately to Klal Yisrael, and not only to their own close circles? If not, what framework should be created or adapted to facilitate this general guidance?

  2. Chareidi Leumi says:

    I have a good friend whose father attended the famed Eitz Chaim yeshiva in Yerushalaim. As part of the acceptance proccess to the yeshiva, he had to get the approval of Rav Aryeh Levine zt”l, the mashgiach. He reviewed mishnayos for the week preceding the meeting and when the time came, he felt prepared for any questions that R’ Aryeh would send his way. R’ Aryeh, however, did not test him on mishnayos but rather the entire session consisted of one question which R’ Aryeh posed: “Vus Iz Acharayus?” He answered what he answered and got admited, but the question itself rang in his years for the rest of his life.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Regarding responsibility for Klal Yisrael as a whole, gedolim of one particular sector making their public decisions in isolation may be insufficient. The Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of Agudas Yisrael, Moetzet Hachmei Hatorah of Shas and the gedolim of the national-religious world such as Rav Shapira of Merkaz Harav, Rav Greenberg of Kerem B’Yavneh, Rav Mordechai Eliahu and others should be talking to each other. When the hareidi gedolim were snookered into taking no position when 9000 Jews were thrown out of their homes, the government took advantage of the power of the gatekeepers in keeping gedolim sheltered from the facts. Such events cause hillul Hashem.

  4. Izgad says:

    “Though it is the gedolim of our time who most exemplify the quality of taking responsibility for the needs of Klal Yisrael”

    And how are the Haredi gedolim taking responsibility for what is going on? I can think of one example of a Haredi rabbi taking responsibility for something in recent years. It was the Spinka rebbe speaking from jail begging people not to follow his example.

  5. Frum Yid says:

    Sorry if this sounds disrespectful, but why, Rabbi Ronseblum, are the gedolim spending their precious time resolving conflicts in yeshivos rather than dealing with the problems of poverty, shidduchim and dropouts? Shouldn’t these take priority?

  6. joel rich says:

    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.

    As a management consultant might note, another solution would be for executive management to raise a crop of senior managers to whom to delegate some responsibilities or to determine that their span of control doesn’t require them to resolve every issue.

    A parent who never lets children make their own decisions would need to introspect before bemoaning his childrens’ lack of decision making ability.


  7. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by joel rich — October 27, 2009 @ 5:32 am :

    Yisro had similar advice for Moshe Rabbeinu regarding the judicial system.

    However, I doubt that the Gedolim themselves have set out to micromanage the Klal.

    We do have very capable rabbonim functioning at various levels already. Is the problem that, although they have the ability and authority to make decisions, they choose to have these vetted first by the Gedolim?

    If many rabbonim feel too insecure to make decisions on their own, that could reflect a breakdown of structure and hierarchy in the world of psak. People with questions can now short-circuit the system by accessing distant Gedolim directly or through the famous “gatekeepers”. People can also second-guess their local or regional rabbonim in light of reports or rumors (!) of how the far-off Gedolim decided cases. Look up references on “disintermediation”.

  8. dr. bill says:

    Joel and Bob, I have talked about disintermediation and the like for a decade in my professional life and indeed the role of global communications and access to information, (and some management that as Bob notes has a biblical source,) cannot be discounted. However, I suspect that in addition, shimush and tradition filled a role that is now less applicable. Many sheailot are a rehash and fly in the face of tradition. Compare the reverance of RSZA ztl for Rav Kook ztl to the reverance he is accorded – a painful example, on occasion censored out of existence.

    Younger rabbis need shimush and they then decide when to consult. When consulting is via a third party I would wonder whether the circumstance, the mosy critical part of most sheailot, is accurately portrayed.

    I once told someone to look at the sheailot sent to RMF ztl towards the latter part of his life versus those he originally dealt with. you would expect that as his prominence grew so would the level of sheailot. it appears otherwise, with some people asking about relatively minor issues. Like dr. soloveitchik concluded it results from the breakdown in the role of tradition and I would argue, the need to ask way too often.

  9. joel rich says:

    Dr. Bill,
    Yup-see my comment about parenting and change it to mentoring(simush)

  10. Nathan says:

    In the Yeshivah World, custom dictates that when a Jew takea a book off the shelf, he does NOT put it back where he took it from.

    If all of us would put each books back to the place on the shelf where we took it from, that would be a small but meaningful way to start taking responsiblity for our actions.

    Rabbi Mordechai Gifter said:

    When a bochur would take a sefer out of the bookshelf, as soon as he finished using it, he would immediately return the sefer to its proper place. Not like today, where they leave the seforim on the shtenders and benches and a seforim collector comes around at night with a cart collecting and putting back all the seforim. In Europe, we had kavod for the seforim. That was Derech Eretz!

    SOURCE: Jewish LIFESTYLE magazine, February 2003, page 15

  11. DG says:

    The answer, of course, is that all-consuming, community-devouring monster, the ultimate vehicle and long-time pride and joy of the yetzer hara, hu malach hamaves: politics. All of the organized solutions raised here depend on clear leadership empowered to actually lead with consistency into the future. That used to at least exist in government because there was a respect for the highest office and a humility that led to sacrifice and service. And it still works in economics because ultimately, winning the gold is all that counts (generally speaking) and following leaders creates more successful business.
    When it comes to a community or actual government, competing interests today (in our me generation) prefer to just neutralize each other. Each believes their best hope is to keep the other out of power rather than to compromise and take a path that is – at its core – one they don’t believe in.
    If the gedolim are dealing with machlokes (=politics) among yeshiva leaders, imagine what they’d deal with in the community at large.
    The answer in this type of situation is a bold bearer of a sword – this is right and this is wrong, no matter whose toes are stepped on (or worse). This would cause an historic rupture in the klal if it happened, but is that better than allowing ongoing degeneration and increasing loss of integrity to Emes? I am afraid even our gedolim struggle with that one.

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