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Isha Bekia

Responsibility and freedom

Apr 30, 2020 | SA Media, SA's democracy


Two central values of Judaism are responsibility and freedom. From the beginning of time, human beings have struggled with the notion of responsibility. The Book of Genesis describes how Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. Their immediate response was to try to hide from G-d, who calls out to Adam, “Where are you?”, meaning “What has happened to you…why have you sinned?” Adam’s response is to blame Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Both refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Responsibility means taking ownership of the consequences of one’s actions. Every action has consequences, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Responsibility is about acknowledging that these consequences are the results of our actions and that, in a sense, the consequences belong to us.

No human society can function without a deeply entrenched commitment to responsibility. All of the principles of accountability, transparency, and indeed democracy itself, are held together by the binding force of responsibility. Responsibility affects the socio-political foundations of our society, and also our personal lives. Every decision we make and every action we perform has consequences for the future. This applies to every aspect of our lives. For example, what we eat today, and whether we exercise, will have consequences for our health in the future. Responsibility is about the notion of a work ethic; working hard today has consequences for tomorrow: as the Psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears, reap with joy”. Scott Peck in his book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ regards a healthy person as someone who has the capacity to delay gratification for long term benefit.

Responsibility is also about caring for others. The Book of Genesis records that when Cain killed Abel and was confronted by G-d, he answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But G-d responded “What have you done? The blood of your brother calls to me from the ground”. Cain tried to shirk responsibility for the consequence of his act of murder. Those who cannot accept responsibility for their own acts also cannot embrace care and responsibility for others. Cain’s philosophy of ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is the philosophy of those who turn their back on responsibility, and it is a philosophy that undermines the foundations of human civilization. As human beings we must care for one another. Responsibility is about being our brother’s keeper.

Ultimately, responsibility is about empowerment. People who take responsibility for their actions are also people who take responsibility for their lives. Our greatest asset in South Africa is our people. We are a nation of heroes, capable of greatness, having demonstrated repeatedly our capacity, with G-d’s help, to overcome daunting challenges. A spirit of responsibility in our country will help to unleash the energy, creativity and generosity of the South African People.

Freedom and responsibility are inter-connected values. The Hebrew Bible tells us that the words of the Ten Commandments were “engraved on the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). The Hebrew word for “engraved” is “charut”, which the Talmud says is linked to the Hebrew word “cheirut”, which means freedom. The message of this word linkage is clear: the engraved letters of the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone are the key to freedom. This is counter-intuitative. How can it be that the words of duty and obligation contained in the Ten Commandments, replete with the instruction “Thou shall not”, are our path to freedom?”

Firstly, without freedom there can be no responsibility. G-d has granted each one of us the freedom to choose how we live our lives. Freedom of choice means that the decisions we make are ultimately our own, albeit with various pressures brought to bear upon us. Because we are free, we must accept responsibility for what we do.

Secondly, without responsibility there can be no freedom. We South Africans know this to be true. We have one of the most progressive and advanced Constitutions with a Bill of Rights that offers legal protection to every member of our society. But we also know that ultimately the courts alone cannot protect us. When people clamour for their own individual rights without any notion of duty or responsibility, then we have the chaos and loneliness of a selfish society. When people grab what they can without any concept of ethics or morality, then we have the suffering and fear of a lawless and violent society. We can only ensure our own freedom when we pursue the freedom of others. We can only be free when the values of goodness, justice and morality pervade all that we do and all that we are.

The ancient solid values engraved in the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, are the very foundations of freedom. What are some of these values? Healthy, stable families, built on the foundations of the sacred words “Honour thy father and thy mother” and “Thou shall not commit adultery”, are the bastions of the human spirit and the protectors of human liberty. Kindness and compassion ensure freedom. The Hebrew Bible warns us on numerous occasions to be kind and compassionate towards the vulnerable “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”. We recently saw with horror during the xenophobic riots how vulnerable the stranger was. There can be no freedom without morality. There can be no liberty without compassion and kindness.

Integrity and honesty are crucial to freedom, in general, and freedom from poverty, in particular. Basic services, such as housing, health care and education, which are crucial to fighting poverty, cannot be delivered without those involved in delivery being imbued with the duty to act with integrity and honesty, and with the duty to work hard. Economic growth required to address unemployment and poverty is also completely dependent on ethics and basic decency. A well-regarded modern thinker, Francis Fukoyama, in his book “Trust” demonstrates with reference to many case studies that the most important component in ensuring robust economic growth are the levels of trust within a society. Only a society where people are prepared to respect the laws and ethics of interpersonal commerce can there be real trust, and then real economic growth.

Treating all human beings with respect, dignity and sensitivity allows them to live in freedom from abuse, whether physical, financial or verbal. Judaism teaches that speech is a great human gift which distinguishes us from animals, and that speech, therefore, needs to be sanctified. Speech is sanctified when it is restrained by the duty to be kind, compassionate and moral. Speech is justified when it is constructive and not destructive. When people debate ideas in a manner which is personally insulting and degrading we no longer have compassionate speech, but abusive speech; we no longer have speech which builds, but speech which breaks down and destroys, speech which infringes on the freedoms and rights of others.

Freedom is engraved in the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments because morality and duty lead to the freedom not only of society, but of the individual. In the ancient Passover prayers we give thanks to G-d for “our redemption and the liberation of our souls”. The physical liberation of Egypt was only a true freedom because it resulted in the freedom of the souls of the newly liberated slaves. This occured when they received G-d’s laws soon after the Exodus. Human beings are constantly searching for meaning, as Victor Frankel, the famous psychologist, has shown. Within each one of us is a Divinely-given soul which yearns for a more elevated existence than that of the merely physical. The soul is nurtured when we live a life of goodness and morality in sync with the restraints imposed by the demands of decency, goodness and justice, and connectedness to G-d. Only then are we really free because only then are we in harmony with our inner essence.

The world-view that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai when he carried the Ten Commandments engraved on stone is a world-view which proclaims that human beings are not a random accumulation of physical molecules, which scrounge around in disorder fighting for survival and ultimately facing complete oblivion. Rather, it is a world-view which sees human beings with immortal souls, who through their deeds perform acts of eternal significance. And that is the most wondrous freedom of all: freedom from a transient, meaningless and fleeting existence; freedom to achieve eternal greatness.