Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

Responsibility. Let’s be honest, it’s a heavy word that just seems to get heavier the older we get. It is a word that echoed all around us at school, at home, at university and continues to haunt our every dream and ambition in the working world...Drink responsibly, drive responsibly, gamble responsibly. Live responsibly. 

‘Try to be responsible’. I had one teacher who repeated this line to me with such alarmingly frequency that it crossed my mind to just change my name via deed poll to Responsible Birnbaum. Has quite a ring to it, reading it back. Could be a protagonist in a Pixar film. Maybe the sequel to ‘Up’. ‘Responsible Birnbaum – The Boy Who Didn’t Encourage an Elderly Man to Fix Helium Balloons to His House’. I like it a lot. 

Growing up, taking responsibility always seemed synonymous with ‘doing things you don’t really want to do, just because an authority figure told you to do so’. But the buck didn’t stop there. Getting the required results or accomplishing a task apparently wasn’t always enough. No – being responsible extended far beyond that into a realm of accomplishing a task with a song in the heart and a smile on the lips

So what exactly is responsibility? Is it doing the right thing, for the right people, with the right attitude? Isn’t that just altruism? And if I do something begrudgingly, who cares? If external results tick all boxes, why is my internal state of mind anyone’s concern? In other words, could it be said that the very concept of acting responsibly is inevitably and hopelessly lost in the fissure somewhere between ‘burden’ and ‘privilege’? 

Perhaps the difficulty lies in how we view responsibility, which stems from the make-up of the word itself. Derived from the Latin ‘respondere’, meaning ‘to answer or to offer something in return’, is there something fundamentally misleading in casting responsibility as an action done by me to someone else? If anything, the origins of the word itself suggest that at some level, I am anticipating a certain level of reciprocity: i.e. I’ll do this thing for you in the hope that when the tables turn and I need assistance, you will ‘offer something in return’ or ‘answer’ my call for help. 

And maybe the expectation in that dynamic is misleading to the point of being unhealthy. 

Deep down, I think my younger self struggled so much with the concept of responsibility because I too quickly misunderstood that I was being asked to do something, say something or think something for my teacher, for my parents, for society, in order to get something in return. And sometimes, that thing in return just didn’t seem worthwhile. So I didn’t act responsibly. 

 In my defence, that misunderstanding was never really challenged, let alone explained away. I am a child of the 90’s, an era defined so strongly by Reaganism/Thatcherism – a political and economic ideology that literally enshrined the notion of ‘quid-pro-quo’, or: don’t do anything – anything – unless there is profit to be made somewhere along the line. If you cannot perceive that profit, jog on; the invisible hand of the market will provide it to you elsewhere. It was economic selfishness, capitalism on steroids crowing at the downfall of the Soviet Union and its illusion of selflessness. 

And it wasn’t helpful. At every turn, acting ‘responsibly’ made sense only insofar as personal profit was obvious. Act responsibly in school in order to gain the highest grades. Act responsibly at home in order to garner more freedom, independence and pocket money. Act responsibly in university in order to gain more grades.  Act responsibly in the workplace in order to gain promotion. 

Don’t get me wrong, all of the above makes total sense and is motivation enough for all but the most reckless of mavericks. But some part of my reptilian teenage brain imagined a world in which it was taught to act responsibly in order to be a better person

‘To answer or offer something in return’. The etymology of the word is no accident. Mull that over for a while. Think back to your own youth, to your current workplace. Is it a burden, or a privilege? 

I’ll be honest, I did some digging. Turns out that Judaism has two very different Hebrew words for the concept of responsibility. And they couldn’t be more dissimilar if they tried. One appears in the Torah and, as such, is treated as the authentic outlook a Jewish person is encouraged to have when thinking about the subject. The other didn’t enter our lexicon until the Mishnaic era (appx. 200 CE), by which time Judaism was already 1600 years old and the word ‘respondere’ was probably heard commonly on the streets of Roman-occupied Judea. 

That word – the one that only appeared on the scene much later – is ‘Achrai’. Its root can be traced to the word ‘Acher’, meaning ‘other’. I found this fascinating. Like its Latin equivalent, 2nd Century Jews spoke of responsibility much in the same way as we do: The focus is outward - directed at an ‘other’ and with no real connection between us, wondering if by doing something for that ‘other’, they would return the favour at a later date. 

The original Biblical term is radically different. First appearing when Judah promises to return his youngest brother Benjamin safely to their father Jacob, the Torah enunciates what we call responsibility as ‘Arev’. Its root is something else entirely and is related to the word ‘Arbev’, meaning ‘a mixture of things’. I found this fascinating too. Gone is the forced or phony separation between a responsible actor and ‘other’. This is no longer about ‘me’ and ‘you’. It is about us. It is about me ‘mixing’ in, getting involved in your life – walking in your shoes and gazing through your eyes so that I can see that what I need to do isn’t about securing a personal gain or profit. It is about following a path of understanding at the end of which I will know beyond a doubt that acting this way is necessary if I am to make your life better lived, and mine better directed. In its purest form, the concept of ‘Arev’ echoes what we call ‘sympathy’, a word derived from the Greek meaning ‘to combine and mix feelings of one’s fellow, thereby creating a community of feeling’. 

Now that’s much better. I’ll drink to that. Responsibly. 

- January 25th 2021

About the Author

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Rabbi Eli Birnbaum Eli studied in Talmudic College in Israel for six years before attaining rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Kollel. Eli completed a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. Together with his wife Naomi, Eli moved back to London to take up a position in the JLE’s campus department, setting up Lunch & Learns across London’s major campuses, as well as creating the ‘Genesis+’ program, aimed at older students and post-graduates. Following this, Eli taught Jewish Studies at Hasmonean for a year, before moving to Aish to work as an educator, primarily focused on the burgeoning Young Professional demographic and, more recently, as the Director of Education for Aish UK. Eli is a lifelong Spurs fan and an avid reader, citing his favourite book as ‘Legends of Our Time’ by Elie Weisel. Eli and his wife Naomi live in Golders Green and have three adorable children. 

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