Last week in my mussar study group, we discussed the soul-trait of “moderation,” neither too much nor too little of any one action or thing. Interestingly, the next trait we’ll be studying is “responsibility,” which is taken to mean “bearing the burden of the other.” Unlike in our society today, Jewish law commands each person to be responsible for every other. If the stranger you come upon has no shoes, it is your responsibility to somehow find some for him.
My own grandparents live this trait with each other every day. They lovingly argue for the ability to take care of the dishes after each meal so that the other doesn’t do it. “No, no, you have worked hard today, I will do the dishes.” “But you made the meal! Surely you deserve to sit and rest while I do the dishes.” You can probably guess already that they usually end up doing the dishes side by side.
Yesterday was “Mitzvah Day” in our congregation, that time when we come together to do many service projects for the community. I organized a group of donors and volunteers to collect items for and assemble “Welcome Kits” for refugees new to Houston. And when doing any type of service, I always bring my daughter with me. This time, after helping to place the cloths, cleaning sprays, and sponges in the “Cleaning Kit” and the towels, etc in the “Bathroom Kit,” SG asked me who is getting these things and why. After I explained to her that many people have had to leave their home countries because they were not free and they have come to Houston to start over with nothing, she and I talked about what that must feel like… walking into an apartment with nothing and having many people donate things on your behalf even though they don’t know you personally.
This is responsibility at its essence. It is that sense of obligation to take care of one another, whether or not we have too little or too much ourselves. Imagine the sense of security and love we would feel all the time if we knew we would always be cared for. Since that is usually NOT the case, and we are strangers while living amongst each other, we have to work to overcome the separation. Not only is it hard to ask for what we need, it can be even more difficult to give it.
Mussar teaches that beyond any sense of personal ego-strengthening satisfaction we may get for helping someone, it is a sign of spiritual elevation when we take care of others around us. Why? Because doing so reflects humility in ourselves and a sensitivity to others.
To make it personal, what about taking on too much responsibility? This can cause stress! There must be a balance between taking personal responsibility and sharing the load. This past week, I thought long and hard, made pro/con lists, and finally came to the decision that I do not need to be the Sisterhood president right now. My energy and hours are obviously finite. I must, right now, focus on doing some of the work, but not all of the work! For the most part, I feel very good about this decision.
Sometimes on our walk home from school, I will ask SG to help me pull in the trash cans for our elderly next-door neighbor. She has stopped asking me “why” we do this since our neighbor could easily do it herself. Now we try to be really quiet in the hopes of pleasantly surprising her and she asks me why we can’t leave a note telling her who her helpers are. I ask her why it matters.
So my questions about this trait:
To what extent can we have too much of a sense of responsibility? What if we want to provide for everyone and donate to every cause, to our own detriment? Obviously if we don’t care for ourselves, we won’t be able to care for others.
How could we work toward changing our society into being truly responsible for one another? That might entail more family-friendly government policies and care, people going out of their way to help one another, etc.