200% Responsible

Author Tara Westover recently spoke about the insufficiency of a 100% model of responsibility. For example, we have good streets and good traffic laws. And we try to design roads so that people can see clearly. But people also need to drive responsibly. “Maybe we need to think in terms of 200% responsibility rather than a 100% model” she said. “Yes, we need to drive properly, but we need traffic lights too.”

A law contained in this week’s portion of Torah intones a similar message. A body of a wrongfully killed person is discovered in no-man’s land. Elders from surrounding cities are required to measure (modedu) the distance from the corpse to the nearest city (Deut. 21:1-9).  That city’s representatives are then obligated to perform specific rituals of accountability and atonement. The sages insist that measuring must be done even when its obvious which city is closest. This implicates the entire region in the terrible loss of life (Talmud, Sota 45a). Even with an unidentified nomad, the passage insists upon widespread responsibility.

Applying a 200% model of responsibility helps in a few ways. First, it reliably insists upon personal responsibility, no matter how necessary helpful regulations and systems may be.  Second, it recognizes that we should not look to a single address to solve complex problems.  Most issues require increased accountability from many interested parties. Senseless bloodshed caused by assault armaments, for example, needs to be addressed by lawmakers, retailers, mental health systems, video game makers, social media platforms, public safety professionals, as well as by an alert citizenry. Lastly, thinking beyond a 100% responsibility model makes taking responsibility more contagious.

In the wake of this week’s devastating sweep of loss caused by Hurricane Dorian, victims – whether familiar or unknown – deserve to be seen and valued. Responsibility is not something we outsource. May those of us who live in places that measure a greater distance away still activate our accountability, and may the assuming of responsibility prove to be a communicable vaccine against overwhelming loss and underwhelming blame.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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