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."

This entry was posted on Friday, April 23, 2010 at Friday, April 23, 2010 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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