Guilt and Responsibility

It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

12 thoughts on “Guilt and Responsibility”

  1. While I enjoy reading your blog, I have to say that I don’t agree with you (totally) on this one. You live in a country that is “racist to it’s core”? Where do you live? You certainly do not live in the United States of America. Not everyone is angelic, but to pronounce that everyone is “racist” is simply over the top. Are we responsible to try to eradicate racism, child pornography, etc.? Yes. But do not try to lay a guilt trip on me that I am responsible for the atrocities that happened to the Black community 70+ years ago. I wasn’t even born then. You sound like a whimpering, guilt-ridden liberal when you write blog posts such as this. Yes, I’ll be reciting the Vidui just as you will do, and as tens of thousands of Jews across this great nation will do. Please, put the confessions into context (which I think you’ve tried to do in this blog, though you’ve almost failed). Shabbat Shalom.

    1. Tzipporah, I used to think that because my family wasn’t even IN the US during slavery times, I had no responsibility for racism as long as I behaved myself and didn’t say the n-word.

      However, I’ve had to backtrack on that since learning a few things. The first is that white Americans – and to a lesser extent, Asian Americans – who have been in the US during the last 60 years have indeed benefitted directly from racism by way of the “red-lining” programs of the mid-20th century. Red-lining meant real estate firms and banks shut African Americans out from not only many neighborhoods but also from access to mortgage loans. While my parents – and later I – were busy accruing equity via the huge increase in real estate values in the 20th century, African Americans were not only shut out of that, they were victimized by alternative lenders who used loopholes in the law to seize the property they were able to buy. I wasn’t guilty of direct action in any of that, but the equity wealth of an entire generation was denied African Americans, and the resultant poverty (and the prejudice associated with the results of poverty) are something that took place in my life.

      Second, I drive all over the Bay Area in connection with my work. Occasionally I am stopped by police, either at a routine stop or (I admit it) because of a traffic violation. I do not fear for my life at those stops. Nor do I fear for my life when I encounter a transit cop on BART, our subway system. However, African Americans DO have to fear in those situations: even when they are compliant in every way, some of them wind up dead under circumstances that are explained away because we have a societal assumption that white police always tell the truth.

      My spouse worked in law enforcement for 33 years. I know there are many good cops, and some bad cops. I also know what it is to fear for the life of my own particular cop. But she managed to get through those 33 years without ever once drawing her weapon. The rate at which African Americans die in encounters with law enforcement leads me to believe that yes, we are a society with a serious, serious racism problem.

      1. I agree that we have a long way to go to eradicate racism in all of it’s forms, and the examples you cite are not new to me. But, you paint with a broad brush. We have come a long way since the inception of this nation. I hope you realize that. I wouldn’t imagine that you (or many) are satisfied with the progress we’ve made as a diverse nation. I was thrown out of the military because of being a lesbian. That was in 1978. Now, gays and lesbians are not discharged for who they love. Now, it is against federal law to do that. I marched in Gay Pride Parades, wrote letters to President Clinton, wrote letters to Senators and Assemblypersons, and performed other behind-the-scenes activist work. Progress came too late for my military career, but now military careers and with full benefits are a reality for today’s soldiers because of the efforts of me, my friends, and thousands of people across this country. Now, to the issue of racism. Look around. Racism (sexism, age-ism, etc.) goes both ways. The current Commander-in-Chief is an excellent example. He (and, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, etc.) has, and continues, to use race-baiting tactics to rile up the masses so we are burdened with riots, loss of businesses, and the potential for loss of life. This is antithetical to the character and quality this nation needs for leadership.
        On another topic, I am very happy to hear that your spouse had never needed to use her firearm during her tour of duty as a Law Enforcement Officer. However, never forget that she had to carry that firearm for a reason. The number one reason was to keep herself alive so she could come back home to you. She was very lucky in that regard. Shalom Ve Kol Tuv.

        1. I am very sorry to hear that you were discharged for being a lesbian in 1978. My spouse was in the Navy at that time, and I know that she was always aware that it could happen to her.

          Change came because we worked for it, and because allies spoke up for us. I have a responsibility to speak up now for others. I see great differences in sentences given, great differences at all levels of law enforcement. The statistics are very clear on this.

          As for knowing why my wife carried a weapon, I am quite aware of it, and I object to your patronizing tone.

          1. I certainly was not attempting to be patronizing. It seems we are two Jews with very different world views. Now, I will be patronizing. You can feel free to live in your liberal, “we are the world” fantasy-land. It is because of Jews like you that we have an Islamophile in the Oval Office who is bringing the world to the brink of WWIII. Meir Kahane was correct in all that he said. I will leave your blog at this time so you can continue to believe you are performing Tikkun Olam. In fact, you are bringing enut to Am Yisrael and the diaspora.

          1. While that may be the implied reason, or even an example of one reason LEOs carry firearms, read Castle Rock vs. Gonzales. 545 U.S. 748, and then tell me how you believe police officers have the obligation to “ensure the public safety.” They don’t, not in all situations. The Supreme Court ruling that I’ve cited may give you a new perspective. LEOs carry firearms to protect themselves while, generally, ensuring the public safety. However, to ensure the public safety is not the sole reason LEOs carry firearms. Shalom.

    2. Saying that a country has a “racist core” is NOT saying that “everyone is racist”.

      What IS “over the top” is to misjudge someone as a “whimpering, guilt-ridden liberal”

  2. I appreciate your reminding us of the many opportunities to do the positive thing to right the wrongs around us, whether or not we are directly at fault. Not to do something to make it right, is a fault.

  3. Of course one can eschew responsibility for certain things, but wow! If everyone acted כאלו “as if” we truly bore responsibility for fixing the world’s ills, there is no doubt we would have a better world! Thank you, Rabbi Adar for reminding us in your uniquely eloquent manner. And may you and all of those you love be blessed with health and joy in 5776!

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