Front Stroke, Back Stroke, Fancy Diving Too

Front Stroke, Back Stroke, Fancy Diving Too

Responsibility. 

Miriam-Webster defines it as “moral, legal, or mental accountability”.  As Jews, we also need to ask: to whom are we responsible or accountable?  To ourselves, our children, our neighbors, to God?  Is it asking too much to be accountable to all at once?

In the worlds of investing, business, politics and even sometimes parenting, acting or advocating on behalf on one’s self (or one’s children) is a vital skill.  However, in order to live as fulfilled adults, we also need to be aware of the responsibilities we share toward our communities, our country, the less fortunate around us, and even our planet.  Or, as Rabbi Hillel put it several millennium ago:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

The fourth unit in the ShalomLearning curriculum is Achrayut.  The most common translations are responsibility and accountability. The root of the Hebrew word ‘achrayut’ actually means acher, ‘other’.   This might lead us to believe that the focus should be solely on others, but as Rabbi Hillel points out, our responsibilities to ourselves and our responsibilities to others are not always mutually exclusive.   The more nuanced meaning of the Hebrew word ‘achrayut’ is that we need to be aware and considerate of our responsibilities to others as we take care of the responsibilities to ourselves.  As our students are learning, this balancing act is not always easy.

The ShalomLearning curriculum was developed according to a framework called Understanding By Design (UbD) also known as backwards design, created by Jay McTigh and Grant Wiggins  A central component of that methodology is that every unit must be focused around one or more Essential Questions to generate Enduring Understandings. Here is a sample of some of the Essential Questions that are the foundation of the Achrayut units for 4th – 6th grades:

  • For which responsibilities do I hold myself accountable?
  • How do I balance my personal desires with my responsibility to others and the community?
  • What can “just one person” do to make a difference?
  • When should you stand back and when should you get involved?

As our students address these questions in their classroom and independent work, let’s take a look at one of our own.  As Jewish parents and educators, what are our responsibilities to our children?  (And speaking of Hebrew roots, did you know that the Hebrew word for parents, horim, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for teacher, moreh/morah?

In fact this is even the same Hebrew root as Torah.  Just something to think about.)  Jewish tradition, through the voice of the Rabbis in the Talmud, answers this question with three specific things that parents are obliged to teach their children: the Torah, to earn a living, and how to swim. Yes, that’s right.  Our ancient sages were able to foresee the American Jewish love affair with summer camp.  And yes, according to the Talmudic experts I checked with, sending the kids to summer camp, or swimming lessons at the local JCC satisfy the obligation.

While swimming may not have been a central part of life in the ancient desert, the Rabbis included this as an example of an actual life saving skill, and to emphasize its importance alongside the cultural skills.

We are charged with providing basic survival skills, which, in the northeast, in the middle of winter, may have nothing to do with water: not getting into a car with a stranger, not drinking and driving, knowing with whom they are communicating on the internet… among others.

In fact, many commentators ask us to focus on what the Rabbis are not saying.  If I can paraphrase their language (the language of the commentators that is) and bring it up to date, the Rabbis are not telling us to stand at the edge of the water and hold our children’s hands, or keep a close watch so that they don’t get too close to the deep end.  Our obligation is to teach them to swim, on their own, so that they are not going to drown when they do eventually end up in the deep end.

Of course, thinking about all the many ways that our children can metaphorically, ‘drown’, in a modern, interconnected world can be daunting, if not downright overwhelming.  This is where the acher in achrayut comes in.  Or, to borrow the ecumenical phrase: “It takes a village.” We do not have to do this alone.  We have schools, synagogues, JCC’s, Jewish youth organizations, and our online ShalomLearning community to support us. To quote one last verse that our students are studying in this unit:

“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena” – “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Michele Rosenfield

About Michele Rosenfield

Michele is a Jewish educator who has developed and taught various online courses. Prior to her midlife career change, Michele was a Systems Consultant for Ernst and Young and an Account Manager for Automatic Data Processing. Michele has a BA in Computer Science from Brandeis University, an MBA in Accounting from Fordham, and an MA in Jewish Education from The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Michele and her family reside in Metuchen, NJ.