From Commitment to Responsibility

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Chanuka 5762 from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





By Harav Yehuda Amital shlit"a



The gemara (Tamid 32a) recounts that Alexander the Great asked the Jewish Sages, "Who is wise?" They answered him, "One who foresees future trends." Foreseeing the future does not mean prophecy. A wise person is one who examines the present situation, analyzes it and draws conclusions with respect to what may possibly take place in the future. Regarding the verse, "Happy is the man who fears always" (Mishlei 28:14), Rashi (Gittin 55b) explains that such a person fears because he "takes care always to take into account future consequences, ensuring that his actions in the present will not cause problems in the future." This teaches us that we should attempt to understand what the future will hold. "Happy is the man who fears always," and there is no harm in attempting to emulate the wise.


Let us therefore analyze the changes that Western society is currently undergoing, and through them to try to understand the trends and directions in Israeli society.




Modern Western society revolves around three central values, all of which relate to the individual: individual rights, individual liberty and individual privacy. It appears at times as though these have attained the status of absolute values, which may not be violated under any circumstances. Their effect on society and culture is discernible in almost every sphere, from legislation, through education, literature and art to the prevailing everyday lifestyle.


"Privacy of the individual" occupies a special place, for it is most comprehensive and the attitude towards it borders on worship. In light of this value, a number of rules have been established which leave their mark on all social relationships. For example, any conversation between two people who are not members of the same family or close friends must be pragmatic and to-the-point, free of anything personal. Any personal comment or question, or even a show of interest in the personal condition or feelings of one's partner in conversation is regarded as rude, a desecration of the holy value of privacy and a vulgar violation of his private life. Every person is a closed world, and no one else has the right to penetrate it. As a result, there is a growing sense of alienation in Western society in general, and in the United States in particular. There is "I" and there is "he," but there is almost never a "we."


The social analysis presented above was valid until September 11, 2001. With the collapse of the Twin Towers, the barriers separating people also came crashing down. Obviously, the atmosphere of trauma and the invasive security checks that suddenly became part of the American routine contributed towards this feeling in no small way. But beyond this, the terrorist attacks seemed to bring about a fundamental change in the American way of life. Suddenly it became permissible once again to ask about the personal condition of other people, and the need to talk about one's feelings became obvious. I cannot say how long this atmosphere - the lack of alienation - that has prevailed in New York since September 11th will last, but what is clear is that the concept of individual privacy will not be held on as high a pedestal as it was previously. Having seen that this value cannot stand up to a crisis, the Americans will not continue to regard it as holy.


This development may influence the structure of Western society even more forcefully. While the emphasis was on individual privacy and alienation dominated human relations, society was witness to some inordinately individualistic phenomena. While every person is fiercely guarding his privacy, his relationships revolve around himself and he feels no responsibility for the fate of the people and the environment around him. After September 11th, when the walls of alienation between people collapsed, this exaggerated individualism may have started to recede.


In addition to the change that has taken place in the perception of the value of privacy, the collapse of the Twin Towers also dealt a mortal blow to post-modernism. The quotation marks that post-modernism had placed around words like "evil" and "good" were suddenly removed, and good and evil again became absolute values. The hand of Divine Providence may be discerned in the fact that holding the Presidency of the United States is a man possessing basic human intuition, who makes repeated use of absolute moral concepts, calling Bin-Laden and other terrorists "evil." Perhaps if the President of the world's single superpower were a Democrat instead of a Republican, he would be using completely different terminology - "enemy" instead of "evil" - thereby leaving open the possibility of thinking that there is no absolute "good" or "evil." This development may also help to weaken the trend towards individualism: when there are no absolute values and everyone is free to mold his values in accordance with his own world-view, then individualism reigns supreme. But when values become absolute, then they are of necessity common to most people, and the individual feels part of a greater society that shares his values.


A similar change to the one brought about in the United States by the collapse of the Twin Towers has taken place in Israel in the wake of the present Intifada. Obviously, what we have experienced is not a grandiose one-time event that brought about immediate results. Nevertheless, the Intifada seems, slowly but surely, to be eating away at the individualism prevalent in our society. With the tragic multiplicity of terror attacks and their victims, and the recognition that nowhere is "safe," the principle of the collective "we" is strengthened at the expense of the individualistic "I."




For the last two years I have spoken at the yeshiva's Chanuka banquet about how today's youth are tired of hearing about "obligation." [See the articles in Alei Etzion vol. 11.] In my opinion, however, there has been a turnaround in the attitudes of Israeli youth during the past year, in the wake of the security situation and the economic recession. The escape into personal, individual "identification" does not sit well with the atmosphere of crisis in the country, which emphasizes togetherness.


Indeed, the renewed sense of togetherness is a very positive development. The gemara discusses the importance of participation in communal distress:


Our Sages taught: When Israel is in distress and one person separates himself, then the two ministering angels that accompany the person, as it were, place their hands upon his head and declare, "Let So-and-so here who has separated himself from the community not witness the future comforting of the community."

Another baraita teaches: When the community is in distress, a person should not say, "I am going to my house to eat and drink, and peace be upon my soul..." Rather, he should feel sorrow together with the community. So we find in the case of Moshe Rabbeinu, who identified with the suffering of the nation, as it is written, "And the arms of Moshe grew heavy, and they took a rock and placed it under him, and he sat upon it." Did Moshe not have a cushion upon which to sit? [He surely did,] but this is what he said: "Since Israel is suffering, so I will be with them in suffering." And whoever shares in the suffering of the community will merit to see the consolation of the community. (Ta'anit 11a)


In light of recent events, and in light of the reluctance of the youth to identify with "obligation," we need to raise the banner of "responsibility." To a certain extent, responsibility is even more binding than obligation, but on the other hand it is a gentler concept that also gives one a sense of satisfaction: if a certain responsibility is placed upon someone, it means that he is worthy of it. People tend to identwith the tasks allotted to them, and when they fulfill their tasks properly they experience satisfaction from their success.


Responsibility is required in many different spheres: responsibility for the psychological and spiritual strength and immunity of the public, responsibility towards people who need help, and responsibility to seek and find ways in which to contribute. In the words of the Sages, being responsible means being a guarantor: "All of Israel are guarantors for one another." This means that Am Yisrael is a living, human entity, in which every limb is concerned for the welfare of every other and is responsible to do its utmost to improve the other's situation. A sense of responsibility towards others means that a person doesn't look about for a cushion to sit on while his companions are suffering. Moshe Rabbeinu sat upon a rock because he felt himself a partner in the suffering of his brethren. Likewise, we are required to feel a sense of partnership and to assume the responsibility of doing what we can to improve society as a whole.


Concerning a person who restricts the sphere of his concern to his own personal well-being - even if he is concentrating on his spiritual well-being - the gemara in Avoda Zara teaches that he is compared to someone who has no God. It is interesting to review the context and to note the broad scope of this statement:


Our Sages taught: When Rabbi Elazar ben Parta and Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon were caught [by the Romans], R. Elazar ben Parta said to Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon: "Happy are you, for you were caught for only one transgression; woe is me, for I have been caught for five."

R. Chanina answered him: "Happy are you, for you have been caught on five counts and you will be saved; woe is me, for I have been caught on one count, and I will not be saved. For you engaged in Torah as well as acts of kindness, while I have involved myself only with Torah. And, as Rav Huna taught, a person who engages only in Torah is compared to one who has no God..."

Did R. Chanina then not engage in acts of kindness at all? We learn that Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya'akov said: "A person should not give money to a charitable cause unless it operates under the auspices of a Torah scholar like R. Chanina ben Teradyon," [thus proving that he engaged in charity!] ... Rather, R. Chanina engaged in acts of kindness, but not as much as he should have. (Avoda Zara 17b)


R. Chanina ben Teradyon died in the sanctification of God's Name when the Romans wrapped him in a Torah scroll and burned him to death. Yet he justified his fate on the basis of not having engaged in acts of kindness to the extent that he should have, devoting himself mainly to Torah study instead. He had not found the proper ratio between his devotion to Torah and his social concern, and for this reason he judged himself to be as "one who has no God." We must learn from this that we are obligated to engage in "gemilut chasadim" alongside our Torah study.


In these difficult times we must emphasize the responsibility that is placed upon each of us. Obviously, in accepting responsibility each person can express his own individuality; but every single person has an obligation to feel a partnership, to take responsibility, to assist, and - with God's help - to fulfill his role in mending society as a whole.


During Chanuka, we thank God at length for the miracles that He performed for us. It seems that our great praise of and appreciation for Divine intervention has dulled our consciousness of the merit of the Chashmonaim for the miracle that they helped bring about. Their readiness to raise the banner of revolt and to go out as a small band against a great and mighty army, to forge against the stream - this was the miracle that the Chashmonaim wrought, of their own free choice. When we speak of the miracles that God performs for us in our days, we must educate also towards the performance of miracles in the spirit of the Chashmonaim: to strengthen our resolve to act out of a sense of responsibility for the fate of the nation as a whole, in the hope that God will be with us and help us in all our endeavors.



(This sicha was delivered on Chanuka 5762 [2001].

Summarized by Yitzchak Barth.

Translated by Kaeren Fish.

The summary was reviewed by Harav Amital.)





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