The Hidden Meaning of Responsibility
Responsibility, Achrayut / אחריות is one of the character traits that a person focuses on while practicing Mussar and engaging in character and spiritual development. To appreciate its nuances, we can go right to the Hebrew for clarification of what is involved in this trait.
Let's first look at the core letters of the word, which in Hebrew, is called the root, the shoresh. By examining the word's core meaning, we avail ourselves of the rich meaning that goes beyond a dictionary definition. The three-letter root word consists of Aleph-Chet-Resh [A-CH-R] which can mean either Achar (After) or Acher (Other). Big deal you say? Well, yes, because embedded in the very words for Responsibility are clues to help us understand the Jewish foundation for this trait / middah.
So, let's parse this out a bit, taking each meaning separately. Let's interpret this concept of responsibility through the lens of Achar (After). We can be responsible to others after we take care of ourselves (think oxygen mask on an airplane). A well-known phrase from Leviticus / Vayikra (19:18) tells us to וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ / V'ahavta L'rayecha Kamocha
"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself" which can be interpreted in several ways, one if which is that by loving and respecting yourself first, you will in fact be better able to care for someone else. In other words, you've worked on yourself enough, so you are able to love fully and therefore will be bringing (less) emotional baggage into the relationship. You are able to give fully, and love that person as a creation of God, when you, yourself, value yourself as being created in the Image of God.
Another interpretation of Achar (After) as part of responsibility is that we are entrusted with creating a better world for those who come after us. We are required to not just think of using up resources but working on replenishing them. Our task goes beyond ourselves to generations in the future.
What happens when we focus on the three-letter root word that can spell Acher (Other)? The meaning of this tells us that we need to be concerned about 'the other' in society. Those who are marginalized, the ones who are easily forgotten, those who are out of our daily sight yet need us to pay attention.
These are our challenges when we think of our responsibility. Do we prioritize our own needs first, as in Acharei / אחרי (After me ----which ironically is also part of the word אחריות ? Or do we concern ourselves with being activists, working on behalf of those who come Achar (After)? Do we focus on the immediate needs of the “other”, those who are mostly forgotten, as in “Acher” (The Other)? How do we juggle our responsibilities to ourselves and to others?
You already know, there is not one answer for all situations, for all times. What we're being asked to do is bring this knowledge of responsibility, with all of its meaning to our effort to be more responsible. To be more fully human.
The sage Hillel, said it best in the most poetic way:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And when I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
(Foundational Ethics / Pirkei Avot 1:14