As the COVID-19 pandemic surged through countries and communities across the globe, I asked a friend, a gabbai of a local shul, why he hesitates to close its doors until the danger passes. He replied that since shul activities comply with the prevailing guidelines, which at that time meant no more than 10 socially distanced people in attendance at once, there was no need to close the shul. Thus, amid the omnipresent danger of infection, he refrained from making an independent decision as to the wisdom of keeping the shul open, falling instead on official guidance.
I do not mean to critique my friend’s decision or lack thereof. To be sure, there are valid reasons to default to the health authorities’ instructions, particularly with respect to a communal-religious institution such as a shul. However, I find my friend’s attitude uncomfortably common during these unusual times, even concerning decisions far closer to home and directly within the individual’s sphere of control.
This is a critical stage, one that call of us to make personal decisions regarding engagement in various activities and weighing their relative risks. Unfortunately, all too often, the crucial “muscle” needed to make these decisions, our sense of individual responsibility, is untrained or out of practice
Among its many effects, the pandemic has urged us to pay closer attention, individually and collectively, to issues we rarely devote much thought to. In this spirit, I wish to use this opportunity to raise an issue that is always contemporary yet is especially relevant at the present time. Many of us are experiencing relief as the virus apparently recedes from our community, while hoping we will not see the kind of resurgence that will again require closures and quarantines. This is a critical stage, one that call of us to make personal decisions regarding engagement in various activities and weighing their relative risks. Unfortunately, all too often, the crucial “muscle” needed to make these decisions, our sense of individual responsibility, is untrained or out of practice.
Not long ago, during the tense weeks of March and April, we all closely followed the counts of confirmed COVID-19 infections in our communities and awaited the concurrent guidance of public health officials. Unlike in NY and elsewhere, where widespread closures were announced abruptly, authorities in Israel initially attempted to slow the spread of the virus by scaling down the sizes of large gatherings. Israel saw full lockdowns by Pesach, but early restrictions only prohibited gatherings of certain sizes, beginning with 5,000 people or more, then 2,000, and finally 100, before virtually all public activities were ultimately banned.
When the ban on gatherings exceeding 100 people was announced I noted that surely risk of infection remains even in smaller gatherings. Of course, this indeed is the case; with disease spreading like wildfire throughout the community, any gathering was a potential vector for contagion. Nonetheless, official guidelines still allowed for certain activities, the reason being that a government’s responsibility is to safeguard against large scale disaster, not to protect individuals from getting sick. Authorities develop their recommendations based on the public health officials’ assessment of the healthcare infrastructure and its capacity to handle a certain level of infection in the community. One wonders then, given that public policies do not address individual risk, why should we—as individuals—view official guidelines as direction or even permission? Government steps in when (and, ideally, only when) it absolutely must act to prevent public emergencies, yet each of us bears direct responsibility for our own health and safety and that of our families. Does the mere fact that the government has allowed—or not directly prohibited—a given activity indicate that it is risk-free?
Do We Want Personal Responsibility?
What facilitates the small-mindedness manifest in narrow adherence to official guidelines, even in the face of risk to one’s self and family? Why would an individual hand off responsibility for his or her safety and wellbeing to the government? Similarly, why did parents not sense the severity of their responsibility in choosing to send their children to school under questionable conditions? Why wouldn’t they do everything in their power to protect their children, both from becoming infected or from infecting others?
For better or for worse, a weakness of human nature is at play here. A constant tension, born of competing natural instincts, rages between our wish that everything be done for us—a disposition to shirk personal responsibility and accountability—and a deep-set preference to be independent, to take responsibility. A child will demand that his parent buy him a bicycle (and repair it when needed), but he wants to ride by himself, where and when he wishes. Likewise, an adolescent might expect that her parents provide her with spending money, yet wishes of course to spend the money as she sees fit. Fundamentally, we could describe this situation as an expectation that others take responsibility for the conditions empowering us to “act” autonomously—or at least giving us the feeling that we are doing so. To wit, the archetypical child seeks pleasure without effort, independence devoid of accountability.
This of course is quite appropriate for a small child, whose parents are present and can take full responsibility for his needs. They guide his actions and provide his needs as they see fit. As the child grows up, he finds himself in situations where his parents are not always there. He may, indeed, fall off his bicycle once his parent is not holding on, and he might be expected to serve himself at the dinner table. The child learns self-reliance in small and slow doses.
carrying elements of “dependency mentality” well into adulthood. For example, it is common for individuals to maintain such a relationship with the state—alongside similar relationships with doctors, lawyers, rabbis, family members, and so on
When the child reaches adulthood and establishes his or her own home, the training wheels come off entirely. At this point, the young person enters his own domain, and is compelled to take full responsibility for his decisions and actions. Hopefully, he will have already learned how to assume some level of responsibility. Otherwise, his psychological makeup will still be that of a child; he will be thrown into crisis as soon as he is faced with a need that is not supplied by someone else.
Even those of us who do not reach such extremes may find ourselves carrying elements of “dependency mentality” well into adulthood. For example, it is common for individuals to maintain such a relationship with the state—alongside similar relationships with doctors, lawyers, rabbis, family members, and so on. On the state level, while we certainly wish for a state that affords us full liberty and autonomy to do as we wish, we also assume government can and will save us the trouble of making difficult decisions. Thus, we find ourselves in situations such as the present one; though the risks are fully in full view, we reassure ourselves that all will be well so long as we narrowly adhere to official guidelines.
How does one encourage a community of individuals to assume direct responsibility for their own decisions rather than view official guidelines as the final word? As with all positive qualities, personal responsibility needs to be taught to and fostered in young children. Facilitating a healthy sense of responsibility and agency are important components of a child’s development. Ultimately, a child with a well-balanced sense of independent agency will sense the meaning of Chazal’s teaching “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and go on to establish his or her own home on strong and stable foundations.
In the following short lines, I would like to focus on specific areas in which we should heed the call to fortify our children’s education in personal responsibility. These can be broadly divided into three categories: financial responsibility; responsibility for actions; and responsibility towards others.
To some extent, a home is managed along the lines of a socialist state. Adults who can earn money (parents) work to support those too young or weak to care for themselves (children). “Home” thus connotes something very different for these two groups. A child’s home is the place where her needs are provided, where there is food to eat and clean clothes for the next day. Parents, on the other hand, know that a home must be created, and constantly maintained, for it to be that very place their children take for granted.
In his new reality, he learns that resources are not automatically provided; he must find sources of sustenance for his family. Instinctively, a new couple may try to identify some other entity to supplant the parental role of omnipresent provider: the state, a benevolent family member, the Kollel
Consequently, when an individual transitions from living in his parents’ home to building his own he is likely to have trouble acclimating to the new responsibility. In his new reality, he learns that resources are not automatically provided; he must find sources of sustenance for his family. Instinctively, a new couple may try to identify some other entity to supplant the parental role of omnipresent provider: the state, a benevolent family member, the Kollel. And perhaps they will indeed be able to get by with very little to meet their initial needs. But they will not have the means to put aside savings against future unforeseen expenses, exposing them to the possibility of a never-ending cycle of debt.
Even when parents occasionally admonish their children about some isolated wasteful behavior, youngsters will rarely develop a sense of financial responsibility. Instead, in their carefree and untroubled way, children continue to make incessant requests for new items and leave in their wake a trail of neglected toys and abandoned hobbies. Whatever exposure a child does get to the concept of resource constraints will, at best, be limited to learning that a particular expenditure cannot be afforded. Entirely absent is any sense of the larger scope of a family’s financial needs and the ways in which increased spending must be matched by a commensurate growth in income.
I would argue that it is entirely appropriate to train children in a measure of financial responsibility while they are still young. Practically, this entails exposing them slowly to the basics of a home’s economic functioning. And while we are not accustomed to discussing personal finances with our children, we might at least consider demonstrating to them, in general terms, how much money is needed to maintain a home. At the right age, they might learn what it takes to support a family of a particular size, how that matches a typical person’s salary or hourly wages, what items or activities are necessary, which are discretionary and how much more money is needed to pay for the latter.
Likewise, a child can be taught the cumulative nature of small sums of money, both in expenses and in savings. A young child can be tasked with reviewing a grocery receipt “to make sure it is accurate.” Summing up the deceptively small figures on a calculator, a savvy nine-year-old can quickly discover that those numbers add up to a large bill.
At a minimum, basic familiarity with handling money and the economics of maintaining a home will help the youngster navigate the grown-up world when his or her time comes to do so.
Responsibility for One’s Actions
In contemporary Western culture, a child often is implicitly trained, from her very first moment in this world, that everything around her is meant to serve and please her—including her parents. Well intended as our fussing may be, at some point we risk causing a significant delay in the child’s sense of agency and ownership of his or her choices and actions.
Our natural instinct to prevent harm from befalling our children can extend even to experiences that, for all their short-term unpleasantness, are important character-building moments
Indeed, normal daily functioning should inevitably teach children about the consequences of their actions. The youngster who is disorganized or inattentive will face an unpleasant surprise when he opens his knapsack and finds his homework or lunch missing. A few such experiences will be far more effective than a frustrated parent’s scolding. And yet, as parents we often find ourselves bending over backwards to protect our children from these very same learning opportunities. Our natural instinct to prevent harm from befalling our children can extend even to experiences that, for all their short-term unpleasantness, are important character-building moments. Even in families where children must carry out specific chores, these are typically isolated activities that must be checked off a list, rather than a delegation of responsibility. A child who makes her bed so her mother doesn’t chastise her is yet to assume responsibility for the cleanliness of her surroundings.
We would do well to seek out opportunities that strengthen our children’s sense of individual responsibility. One such example might be to encourage children to spend time in the kitchen preparing food on their own. They are not doing so to help their parents. Indeed, chances are they will make a larger mess, do an inferior job, and their labors will consume far more time than it would take the parent to complete the same task. But that is not the point, nor should these inevitable outcomes or the associated aggravation for the adult serve as a deterrent (at least not always). The purpose of giving a culinarily-inclined child free reign in the kitchen is to facilitate that child’s sense of responsibility, and, indeed, the attendant experience of success or failure—as the case may be.
Rather than a list of discrete, specific tasks, household chores might be framed as general “jobs.” A job connotes responsibility. Picking up a puzzle from the floor is a task; tidying up a room is a “job,” successful execution of which entails some basic individual decisions. Does this item belong here or not? If the latter, where should it go instead? And so on. Thinking about and making these decisions, and even the terminology itself, all reinforce the child’s sense of personal responsibility and the importance of his or her partnership in maintaining the home as a pleasant place for the family.
Responsibility Towards Others
A critical component of personal responsibility is the relationship one has with his surroundings and his responsibility for the welfare of fellow humans. Tosafos teach that “one must take greater precautions to avoid harming others than he does to protect himself” (Bava Kamma 23a). It is an ethical imperative than one be vigilant to avoid causing harm to others, beyond one’s responsibility for his own wellbeing. While self-preservation and pursuit of one’s needs may come naturally, we are called upon to expand our sphere of concern and activity to include the environment around us and the people who inhabit it.
A healthy awareness of and relationship to one’s surroundings will serve the child well in their own future homes and myriad interactions throughout life. These can also ultimately lay a foundation for future civic engagement and productive contribution to the community at large
As a matter of course, family life affords many opportunities to train children in developing awareness of others and their needs. Keeping quiet or moving their game to another room while someone else is sleeping teaches children to “flex” when their needs compete with those of others, a basic skill they will need in order to navigate the world as adults. Once again, these should not be formulated simply as directives the child must comply with, rather communicated by the parent as an attitude to be learned and developed. A healthy awareness of and relationship to one’s surroundings will serve the child well in their own future homes and myriad interactions throughout life. These can also ultimately lay a foundation for future civic engagement and productive contribution to the community at large.
One might argue that our own community’s culture, with its intense focus on personal achievement, particularly in spiritual pursuits such as “completing Shas” or “becoming a Gadol,” might be partially to blame for diluting this sense of interpersonal responsibility. We must overcome such tendencies. At the end of the day, the budding scholar is also part of a family and a community, toward whom he bears unalienable responsibility. This too must be a part of his religious value system.
Conclusion: Being Great People
I have framed the above call to action—call to personal responsibility—in terms of training our children. Ultimately, however, these are lessons we must internalize for ourselves too.
Let us return to our present moment and the pandemic that so preoccupies us. In our decisions, we must recognize the tension between the state’s responsibility toward its citizens and each individual’s responsibility for himself and his family. Public policies, at best, supplement personal accountability; they cannot supplant individual agency. Moreover, we must incorporate into our discourse far more focus on our mutual responsibility towards each other and the community. None of us has a right to limit our considerations to assessing risk to oneself. We are obligated to act as we each carry the virus and are responsible for ensuring we do not spread it further. Such an attitude will prove to be far a more successful strategy to vanquishing the disease than mere compliance with official rules.
As Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer has noted, the Gemara teaches (citing from R. Yochanan) that “A gadol (major) who is reliant on his father’s table is a minor, while a kattan (minor) who is not reliant on his father’s table is a gadol” (Bava Metzia 12b). A person wholly dependent on his parents, who cannot assume personal responsibility even for his most basic needs, is dubbed a “minor” even if his age suggests otherwise. In parallel, a person who takes responsibility for himself is called a “major” even if he is a minor in years. An individual’s “coming of age” is thus contingent on his self-reliance, his capacity to take responsibility for his own self.
As ordinary citizens, we are perpetually called to personal responsibility. But this period—corona times—calls us to take our responsibility beyond its regular boundaries. We are called to greatness
Moreover, the independence measure is not binary. The greater a person’s responsibility—for himself and for others—the “greater” a person he becomes. Truly great people are those able to take their level of responsibility to a different plane—responsibility for the entire city, the entire state, the entire world. As ordinary citizens, we are perpetually called to personal responsibility. But this period—corona times—calls us to take our responsibility beyond its regular boundaries. We are called to greatness.