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My sweet little rats Mr. Darcy (left) and Mr. Knightley (right), enjoying some watermelon:

Parshat Kedoshim: Personal Responsibility  

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As we know, G-d takes care of the poor and gives us commandments to help out those who are in need -- widows, orphans, converts, the poverty-stricken, and so on. We are obligated to help out anyone who is at a disadvantage or might be oppressed by others. In Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:9), it says the following:

ובקצרכם את קציר ארצכם לא תכלה פאת שדך לקצר ולקט קצירך לא תלקט

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.

If you look closely at the Hebrew text (as this is not apparent in the English translation), you see that it starts off by addressing the people using the plural form -- ובקצרכם -- and then as the verse continues, it suddenly switches off to the singular form when it says לא תכלה. But if the entire verse is addressed to the same audience, why does it at first address them in plural and then in singular?

Kli Yakar interprets the commandment as follows. Even at a time of gathering, when many people are gathering their crops, you should not think that the poor person can support himself through the field of other people and therefore you do not have to leave off a corner of your own field. The obligation is put on every individual and he cannot exempt himself because of others. So even though everyone is leaving off a corner for the poor and it might seem like this farmer's little corner does not matter, the Torah is saying that it does matter, because every single individual person is obligated to do this.

You see this a lot in life. When people need help -- people who are not really close to us, or are even total strangers -- we tend to think that someone else will come along and help them. We don't want to take responsibility for those people. After all, who are they to us that we should help them? We assume that somebody else will come to their assistance. We pretend we don’t see. We act as if it’s not our problem. We think, “There are hundreds of people who know about this or see this person is in need of help – one of them will help. My help doesn’t matter.”

And of course, you know what happens in situations like these. Chances are that nobody ends up helping because everyone thinks someone else will. But that someone else also doesn’t want to take responsibility for something that does not personally affect him or his close group of friends and family. I mean, if you don't want to take responsibility, why should somebody else?

In psychology, this is known as the diffusion of responsibility. When the responsibility is spread over all the people involved and there are a lot of people, you assume that someone else will help and if they don't, that must mean that no help is required -- even though this is not at all the case.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of attending a lecture by Elie Wiesel. The topic of the lecture was the tragedy of the St. Louis ship and its passengers during World War II, when Jewish refugees from Germany were denied entry in Cuba, America, and Canada. These countries refused to take responsibility for them, even though they could have saved them from death. (Various European countries eventually agreed to allow a certain number of the ship's passengers in.)

Elie Wiesel spoke about the things we can learn from those events, and two of those lessons were that when help is required we should give it right away, and when victims rely on assistance, we should not think others will do it because others think we will.

Most of us know of people who need help, of things that need fixing, of the changes we could effect, but how many of us will actually stand up and do something about it, instead of waiting around for the next person? Because you never know when that next person will come or if he will come along at all. I know I would find it difficult to be that person who takes the responsibility and does what needs to be done.

But if we want to make a difference in this world, we have to stop having the "someone-else-will-do-it" mindset and start thinking more along the lines of, "I will do it. I will take the responsibility on myself."

Feel-Good vs. Direct Approach  

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I was thinking recently about the different reasons people might have for following certain Torah commandments. When a person -- a speaker, a writer, or just a friend -- is trying to convince another to follow a commandment, there are two different tactics one can use. One can either state the reason given by the Torah or by respected Torah authorities whose knowledge has been accepted for centuries, or, the other choice is to give reasons that will make the person you are trying to convince feel good about the whole thing. For instance, if you are trying to convince a person to be shomer negiah, you can either give the halakhic reasons or you can speak about the powerful effect of physical contact.

As a teenage girl in a religious school, I mostly hear the feel-good reasons. How special you are, how you should not make your body cheap (although it was never quite explained how shaking someone's hand can be making you 'cheap'), how if you are shomer negiah now you will be happier later when you're in a meaningful relationship (meaning marriage), and so on.

Now, I am not trying to discount these reasons. They have a lot of truth to them and some of them are quite logical, but why are they the main focus? What happened to giving halakhic explanations? Now, I know that for those who could not care less about the black-and-white of halakha or want something that appeals to their emotions more, such explanations will do the trick, but what about the others? What about those that don't subscribe to all this feel-good stuff that gets thrown at them by books, speakers, and teachers? What about people who want something more than that, who want an actual source?

Of course, if you only speak of sources and halakhic explanations in a school for girls or in a book that is aimed at teenagers, you will get nowhere. It is important to explain it in a way that will appeal to them, but at the same time it is necessary to also talk about halakha using a frank, direct approach so that girls should not think that they only need to follow the halakha for as long as it makes them feel good.

I once approached a friend of mine who was reading a book for teenagers about shomer negiah, and I remarked to her that although it is good that she is reading it and I hope that she gains something from it, she should keep in mind the halakhic reasons and she should also realize that we do not keep shomer negiah because it makes us feel all good inside but because G-d issued His commandments and we follow them. Otherwise, if you are only shomer negiah because you think you will benefit from it or it makes you happy or will prevent regrets, what happens if one day you give up on that and decide that it in fact does not make you happy and you do not see any immediate benefit in it?

Once you bring things down to the human level and think about the Torah in terms of your emotions and how you feel about its commandments, you are in dangerous waters. If you only do what makes you feel good, who's to say you will follow halakha? I mean, if you need the feel-good reasons because they will encourage you in your Torah observance, then by all means, go ahead! But they should not be your only reasons. They should complement, not supplant.

One Year  

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I began this blog on April 1st, 2009. I had spent a couple of weeks before that wondering if it was worth it or not, if I should or I should not. But I started. I had no idea who would be reading my blog or in which direction it would go, but I plunged into it and began posting. At first, I had a lot to say and would write, on average, 15 posts a month. That number reached its peak at 19 in August 2009, when I was in Israel and had so much to say and to share, but dwindled to single-digit numbers once the school year started.

I am still here, still writing, still thinking, and you will have to believe me when I say that I have not abandoned my blog (although it sometimes seems like it when I do not post for long stretches of time).

Anyway, I just want to thank my readers (and especially those who comment, since feedback is always appreciated), and here's to another year of blogging. :]