The Price of Greatness is Responsibility

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This article first appeared in Mishpacha Magazine, August 2023.  

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Earlier this summer, after receiving a call from his daughter in tears complaining about mean counselors and other issues, a concerned Jewish father in the UK flew 360 miles by helicopter to pick her up and bring her home. But he isn’t the only one guilty of helicopter parenting. More and more, loving parents who mean well and are eager to help, protect, and support their children are swooping in to rescue them, rather than teaching them responsibility.


While this trend is nothing new, it is gaining traction. According to the Wall Street Journal, parents have long shepherded their children through school and camp, but they are now entering the workplace. “Recruiters and hiring managers say they are seeing an uptick in parents inserting themselves into their children’s professional lives, calling up hiring managers, applying for jobs on their behalf and even showing up on the job to help mediate conflicts.”


This trend in general society, like many others, has infiltrated our frum community, with parents running interference in countless areas of life. For example, when I was a child, on parent-teacher night, children were nervous and anxious; concerned parents would come home with criticism and consequences. Today, it is educators, rebbeim, and morahs who are often anxious, having to engage parents who are critical of them and defensive of their children.


While the phenomena of helicopter parenting and now bulldozer parenting come from a good place, they are unintentionally having bad consequences, the biggest of which is raising young people who don’t know how to take achrayus, to live with responsibility and accountability.


Our sacred Torah teaches that indeed, the capacity to take responsibility is the very essence of man. In both the story of Adam and Chavah being expelled from the garden and the story of Kayin rising up to murder his brother Hevel, the Torah is clear that Hashem meted out punishment, not for disobedience and murder, but because when confronted with their mistakes, all the parties failed to take responsibility. Adam and Chavah point fingers and pass the buck. Kayin incredulously challenges, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”


Mistakes are human, they are forgivable. But only when ownership and responsibility are taken. The Torah makes clear that Hashem doesn’t punish the protagonists of these opening stories for having committed mistakes, but rather because they refused to take responsibility for them.


Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichos Mussarmaamar 15) explains that Yehudah is charged with being the progenitor of the monarchy because he demonstrates achrayus, the critical character trait for leadership. Indeed, he writes that one who doesn’t take ownership over his actions or doesn’t bear responsibility for others is a lav bar daas l’gamrei, not fully intellectually competent.


When Adam and Chavah sinned, Hashem called out, “Ayeka? Where are you?” Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, pointed out (Toras Menachem, vol. 21), this call was not directed only to them. It echoes and reverberates in every generation. Where are you? Will you take responsibility? Will you own the consequences of your actions and behaviors? Will you take charge to repair and redeem the world? Will you step up, be resilient, choose to respond to your circumstance rather than blame it?


Ayeka — are we, with the best of intentions, raising a generation of emasculated, entitled, spoiled children who don’t know how to take achrayus for decision making, for their well-being, and for their future? Or are we raising young people who are empowered to be resilient and to take responsibility? Are they being taught and trained to provide, protect, nurture, nourish, and build lives and homes not only of kedushah, taharah, and Torah, but of achrayus and askanus?


In a conversation with Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlita, he shared with me that in his opinion, the biggest challenge in shidduchim today is people’s lack of ability to take achrayus. He believes there should be an emphasis on teaching this middah in yeshivah. Taking achrayus in yeshivah doesn’t have to mean taking turns cleaning the dining room or serving the meals. It also means taking ownership over learning the areas necessary for being a ben Torah, like hilchos Shabbos and hilchos brachos, that aren’t necessarily part of a yeshivah curriculum.


He said the yeshivah should be a place that doesn’t coddle but instead challenges; it must not be too cozy or comfortable, a place of personal pleasure but of giving and caring for others. Rav Berkowitz said that during his years in the Mir, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz emphasized over and over how the yeshivah must be a place of achrayus bein adam l’chaveiro.


Our world of bochurim sitting and shteiging is the crown jewel of our generation, a reflection of the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy today and that was denied to so many who came before us. Certainly, we should celebrate and elevate them, but we must be careful that we don’t put them on a pedestal in such a way that we push them off a cliff.

Having the zechus to sit in the ohel shel Torah must yield greater capacity to take responsibility, to take achrayus for ourselves and for others, not less. It must mean during the zeman taking responsibility for chaveirimchavrusas, and the yeshivah. And during bein hazmanim, it should mean being first to help at home, not sitting and expecting to be served by others. It means being invested in and contributing to the family, not approaching them with a sense of entitlement or magia li.


Teaching and demanding achrayus won’t distract or dilute yeshivah learning, it will elevate it. In 1946, the Jewish world was desolate, recovering from destruction. The great mashgiach, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, had survived with others from the Mir, and he came to America for a short time. He related that he was once sitting with others who had escaped the furnace of Europe, and they observed that the best learning of their lives was during the few years when they were in Shanghai. The learning and davening were simply on a different level, they said. They wondered why; after all, they were on the run, refugees in a foreign land. One would assume that their diligence, davening, and focus would suffer, and yet it was elevated.


Rav Chatzkel explained: “Over there in Shanghai, we learned with a profound sense of achrayus. They had received reports that Hitler, yemach shemo v’zichro, had finished off the Jews. We thought that those in Shanghai were the only survivors of the Torah world. We thought the future of Yiddishkeit literally rested on our shoulders, it was our achrayus. When you feel a sense of achrayus, everything is elevated and more intense.”


The Gemara (Avodah Zarah17b) tells the story of Elazar ben Durdaya, a lost soul who had acted so egregiously, sinned so perversely, that he was told he had no portion in Olam Haba. Shaken, he turned to the heavens and earth, the mountains and valleys, the sun, moon, and stars, and anywhere he could to ask for help in redeeming himself.


Ein Eliyahu explains that each place he turned to was a metaphor for something. He tried to blame nature; he tried to turn to his astrology; he wanted to rely on the mountains, the harim, which can be read as horim, his parents; but in the end, none of them were legitimate excuses and none of them could rescue him. When rejected by them all, he collapsed into the fetal position and declared, “Ein hadavar talui ela bi — the only one who can change and improve things is me.” At that moment, with that expression of taking achrayus, a bas kol declared, “Rabi Elazar ben Durdaya is welcome in the World to Come.”


Taking achrayus is redeeming, liberating, defining, and it is the first step to developing a healthy sense of self. We need to teach our children from a young age to live with the principle of ownership, that ein hadavar talui ela bi.


The mishnah in Avos (1:14) teaches, “Im ein ani li, mi li? Uk’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’im lo achshav, eimasai? [If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?]” Rabbeinu Yonah explains the mishnah to mean, “If I don’t rebuke myself and hold myself accountable to be vigilant with Torah and mitzvos, who is there to motivate me? The prompting of others is only good on a temporary basis, but when the person motivates himself each and every day, he increases his focus on doing the work of Hashem successfully.”


Others can motivate and inspire us, but ultimately our success in avodas Hashem, in marriage, in our professions, and in life is dependent on our ability to take responsibility.


Today, parents take responsibility for researching and choosing shidduchim, shadchanim often plan the dates themselves, dating coaches provide a script of just what to say, rebbeim later provide strict gedarim of how often to speak and see each other, the wedding and chassan and kallah gifts surrounding it are paid for by others, and support is often provided for several years.


There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these realities on their own, and they are unlikely to radically change; but are we positioning couples for success days and years after the wedding, when they must navigate integrating their lives, making compromises and sacrifices, and communicating productively, all on their own? Can we include them in the process in such a way that they are taking achrayus for their own lives as a prerequisite for beginning dating, and during the dating itself? We need to be roeh es hanolad, strengthening relationships to be resilient during times when couples have nobody running interference, managing, planning and paying for everything.


While radical changes are unlikely, small adjustments can be made that will hopefully have large impacts. For example, let’s stop referring to young adults who are looking to get married as “boys” and “girls.” If they are ready to be married, to b’ezras Hashem have children, don’t we believe they are adults? And shouldn’t we address them as such?


Among the questions we ask when researching a shidduch, let’s add: Are they baalei achrayus? Do they take responsibility? Can you give an example, from their time in yeshivah or seminary, or from their home or community, of how they demonstrate it?


Young couples, including those getting support or help from parents, should have skin in the game: live within a budget, pay their own bills, find opportunities to earn on their own through extra learning, shemiras sedorim, or tutoring, so they experience what it means to earn, understand the value of the money we work and sacrifice for, and make the difficult decisions for how it is spent.


It is not too late to retire our helicopters and bulldozers, to love and nurture our children, not by coddling them in a cocoon but by teaching, supporting, and guiding them as they practice and learn the wonderful middah of achrayus, of taking responsibility.


The greatest influence we can have is to model a life for them in which we prioritize not only our own happiness and pleasure but take responsibility for others. Indeed, as we enter the month of Elul and prepare to stand before Hashem who will determine our destiny, the single biggest merit we can earn is to take responsibility.  Rav Wolbe (Alei Shor 2:305) quotes Rav Yisrael Salanter, “The greatest advice for triumphing in judgment is to be indispensable to others, an ish haklal.”


Sir Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” If we want a bright future for our children and ourselves, we simply cannot afford not to pay it.