So, if a child is doing poorly in class, parents blame the school, the teacher, the academic standards, but never their poor kid or themselves as parents. If gas prices get out of hand, we blame the government for restricting oil production, or the big oil companies for price gouging, but never ourselves for hopping into our inefficient gas-guzzlers every time we think of something to buy or play with, even if it’s only a few blocks away. American taxpayers see themselves as victims of ballooning national debt and undisciplined government, even though they’re the ones who’ve voted in that government and demanded maximum entitlement and minimum taxation.
While most of our friends and acquaintances—and perhaps ourselves as well—play the blame and victimization game, responsibility rejects it. It says, When I see a problem, I help solve it, instead of spending my energies on blaming someone else. When I’m in a tough situation, I refuse the powerless role of victim, and take on the powerful role of one who finds a way to overcome.
Alan Morinis points out in Everyday Holiness that responsibility means anticipating the outcome of what we do. A blamer or a victim waits for things to happen—or not happen—to him or her. The responsible person considers the likely outcome of his or her actions, or lack of action, and changes course accordingly.
We’ve just concluded our emphasis on the middah of chesed or loving-kindness. I feel, as I often do at the end of a week like I’m not ready to leave that one behind. I’m not finished with chesed, and now I’m supposed to start working on responsibility. But the point of mussar practice isn’t to put each middah into its own compartment and tackle the middot one at a time. Rather, we’re to practice all the middot all the time, b’ezrat Hashem, and each week we review or refresh one of our ongoing practices. The middot aren’t separate at all, but they reinforce each other.
So, responsibility is an essential part of chesed. If I’m a blamer or a victim I won’t have much use for chesed, but if I’m willing to be responsible for my deeds, and especially for the outcome of my deeds, then chesed becomes a tremendous ally.
One of the earliest examples of chesed in Scripture comes in the story of Abraham’s servant finding a bride for Isaac (Gen. 24). When the servant arrives at the well in Abraham’s home town of Haran, he prays,
“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show chesed to my master Abraham. . . . Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown chesed to my master” (Gen. 24:12, 14).
The servant is asking for God’s chesed, but it will be reflected in a great human act of chesed. The girl who takes responsibility—not just to agree to his request, but to see beyond the request to his larger needs and take responsibility to meet them—this is the chosen one. She’ll be characterized by chesed, and she turns out to be Rebecca, a mother in Israel.
Responsibility means that we stop tossing the hot potatoes of blame and victimization and we find opportunities to overcome, which are often opportunities for chesed. And such opportunities are endless, as the Mishna—and Rebecca—remind us, “These are the precepts that have no prescribed measure: the corner of a field, the first-fruit offering, the pilgrimage, acts of chesed, and Torah study” (Peah 1.1).