The number of COVID-19 cases is soaring across the country. Yet in these trying times, it is clear that there is so much more than a virus that is wrong with America.
This week, in Pirkei Avos, we will once again read the advice of Hillel. His words are a diagnosis for what ails us and the prescription for how we can recover.
Hillel wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am only for myself, what am I?”
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” represents the concept of personal responsibility. It is each person’s responsibility to work for a living, to support their family, and to provide for their basic needs. We should not rely on others, nor demand that others support us.
“When I am only for myself, what am I?” is the concept of areivus – communal responsibility. We need to extend a helping hand to those in need and to consider the impact of our actions on others.
Through most of American history, we as a people have believed in both personal and communal responsibility. We did not always live up to those ideals and we often debated how best to carry them out. But the concepts of personal responsibility and communal responsibility were accepted. Today, many people reject personal responsibility, many reject communal responsibility, and many reject both.
For many people, the concept of personal responsibility has given way to a culture of “entitlement,” defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “the feeling that you have the right to have or do what you want without having to work for it.” Many people now believe that they are entitled to free health care, free college tuition, free housing, and a guaranteed income. Such an attitude encourages people to make demands rather than to work to improve their situation. It erodes the work ethic and makes society less productive. It leads people to blame others and to react with rage towards those who deny them what they are entitled to.
We would do well to heed the advice of a man who overcame serious medical problems and devastating personal tragedies to become one of America’s greatest Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you could kick in the pants the person responsible for most of your troubles, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” Instead of blaming others, we need to take charge.
Yet personal responsibility alone only goes so far. There are many hard-working people who still find it difficult to make ends meet. Many of us face daunting challenges that are not of our own making and that are difficult to overcome. None of us succeed in a vacuum. All of us can point to parents, spouses, children, rabbis, teachers, friends, colleagues, and professionals who have made a difference in our lives. The concept of Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh – all Jews are responsible for one another – is not just about helping those less fortunate; it is a recognition that we need each other, and our fates are intertwined. We have a responsibility to those around us and to generations yet unborn, because our own future depends on it.
Yet, many act in reckless disregard of this principle. Corporate executives rake in huge salaries while ignoring the impact of their decisions on those who have contributed to their success: their employees, their suppliers, their customers, and their communities. People ignore and even ridicule the advice of public health professionals during a pandemic, endangering themselves and others. The government cuts taxes and increases spending, running up a multi-trillion-dollar credit card bill that our children and grandchildren will have to pay for years to come.
The impact of the rejection of personal and/or communal responsibility is clear: Large numbers of people are being left behind and feeling marginalized. This leads to anger and polarization that makes it even more difficult to address the serious challenges facing us.
Hillel’s prescription for America is a society in which we take responsibility for ourselves and for each other – where we insist that people work to provide for themselves and for their families and we make sure that all who work hard are able to live with dignity.
With the difficult challenges facing us today and others sure to face us in the years to come, we also need to remember Hillel’s third question: “If not now, when?”
By Manny Behar