Simple observation indicates that responsibility is capable of transforming a person. An individual faced with a daunting array of tasks to perform and issues to resolve will almost always adapt to handle the circumstances.
The Gemara states (Shabbos 11a), “If all the seas were ink, the marshes quills, the heavens parchment, and all the people scribes, it would not be sufficient to write about the ‘void’ of the government.” Rashi explains that the “void” in question refers to the depth of the king’s heart. A king must concern himself with the affairs of all of his subjects, the smooth running of his entire kingdom, and major issues such as wars with his neighbors, rendering proper judgment in court cases, and the like. The average citizen’s puny concerns pale in comparison to the vast array of issues that weigh upon the ruler of a country. And this is no less true of today’s political figures. The president of the United States must deal with a crushing burden of issues: the economy, the military, public education, taxes, politics, and many more topics of concern. How does one man handle such massive responsibilities? When a human being is placed in a position of awesome responsibility, that very situation has the capacity to extract unimaginable greatness from him. A president knows that he, and only he, is responsible for contending with all of these issues, and that is what elicits his ability to do so.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz writes that a person achieves greatness by accepting responsibilities. The more responsibility a person accepts, the greater he becomes. The Tosefta (Brachos ch. 4) states that Yehudah was blessed with malchus, royalty, because he advised his brothers to sell Yosef and thereby saved him from death. But what was Yehudah’s motivation for doing so? After all, Yehudah had sat with his brothers on the bais din that had found Yosef deserving of the death penalty. In his estimation, the halacha called for Yosef to be put to death. Why did he suddenly make an about-face?
Yehudah, Rav Chaim explains, was troubled by the fact that the brothers would not be able to take responsibility for their actions. He knew that if they put Yosef to death, they would have to conceal it from their father, and he felt that that alone made it wrong to carry out the verdict they had pronounced. Yehudah’s trait of taking responsibility came to the fore again later, when he confessed that he was the father of Tamar’s unborn children. As the Tosefta relates, this attribute was what earned him his position of royalty.
This principle is relevant to many common situations. How should a parent react when a child blames his poor performance in school on an inept teacher or disruptive classmates? Some parents might be tempted to agree with the child and reassure him that his failure was not his own fault. But instead of empowering the child, this response actually diminishes the child’s ability to succeed. In order to promote future success, the parent should tell the child – gently, of course – that regardless of his teacher’s acumen or his friends’ behavior, in the final analysis, his performance in school is entirely in his own hands.
In the office environment, “micromanaging” tends to limit employee productivity. A business thrives when employees are entrusted with important tasks and made to feel responsible for the company’s success. That sense of responsibility brings out the employees’ latent capabilities.
The same is true of kollel yungeleit. Young men often flourish the most when they leave the large kollelim of the big cities and are thrust into the smaller, more intimate environments of out-of-town kollelim. Suddenly, they find themselves shouldering additional responsibilities: delivering a shiur, mentoring, paskening, and being mekarev. In such situations, yungeleit often discover strengths that they never knew they possessed.
Hashem calls the Jewish people “beni bechori Yisroel – My firstborn son, Yisroel.” The Torah also tells us that we are a mamleches kohanim, a nation of priests. We are destined to be the leaders of the world. As Hashem’s “firstborn,” so to speak, we are entrusted with a much higher level of responsibility.
In November 1963, the United States was shaken to its core by the sudden assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The president was shot on a Friday morning, and a state funeral was held the following Monday. Private and public schools throughout the country were closing that day, and Dr. Joseph Kamenetzky, the director of Torah Umesorah, asked Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky whether their schools should follow suit.
Rav Yaakov advised that the schools should definitely be closed, quoting the Kuzari’s teaching that the Jewish people’s relationship with the nations of the worlds is analogous to the relationship between the heart and the rest of the body. The Jews are supposed to be the “heart” of the world and teach morality to all the nations. If such a horrific wrong could be committed, it meant that the Jewish people had failed, in some measure, in carrying out their mission.
The novi (Yeshaya 53:1-6; see Rashi, ibid.) makes a shocking statement: Some of the suffering that the Jewish people experience is a result of the sins of the gentile nations. How can this be? Daas Sofrim explains that Klal Yisroel was meant to serve as an example to the gentile nations. If we fail to influence the rest of the world, chas veshalom, it means that, on a certain level, we have been remiss in fulfilling that responsibility.
This idea provides us with another answer to the question we raised last week: How can we avoid demonstrating disrespect for people who do not live in accordance with the Torah? If we recognize that it is our responsibility to model the correct way to live, and that their failure to live properly represents a failing of our own, we will not be able to feel disdain for them.
It is often tempting to consider ourselves incapable of repairing the world’s ills. We tend to look around and tell ourselves that the rest of the world will always despise us and it is not within our ability to make a difference in the world. But these thoughts are disempowering. It is a fundamental part of our faith that everything that happens in the world is connected to the Jewish people. In truth, everything depends on whether we succeed in making ourselves into proper reflections of Hashem. If we take responsibility for doing so, we can truly make a difference.
Next week’s topic: How Klal Yisroel is considered “married” to Hashem.
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This column is based on the Sefer Mekadshei Shemecha by Rabbi Shraga Freedman. For a free download of the sefer, hard copies, or more resources; to send comments or stories for future columns; or to start a chaburah in your shul or city, email firstname.lastname@example.org.