A number of years ago my husband took a sabbatical and our family went to spend the time in Israel. It was a year full of many challenges (the first Gulf War being but one of them) and many opportunities. Although we had planned to return to Los Angeles, we were torn. We got involved in some projects we were excited about, our kids were adjusting (with the little ones babbling in a language similar to but not quite Hebrew!) and we were starting to settle in. Perhaps we shouldn't go back to LA after all.
Night after night we agonized. Here? There? Here? There?
We really wanted to do what's right but that is often so difficult to determine. So we went to meet with Rabbi Noah Weinberg, zt"l. "Rosh Yeshiva," we said, "what does the Almighty want us to do?"
"The Almighty wants you to figure out what the right thing is," he replied. His answer was frustrating (back to "eeny, meeny, miny, mo") – and empowering. Some people mistakenly believe that religious Jews are like robots – with everything carefully planned and determined and no room for independent thought. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sense of real and ultimate consequences for our actions imbues every decision with greater import, requiring greater deliberation.
Rabbi Weinberg constantly reminded us to take responsibility for our brothers and sisters wherever they may be.
There are those who turn to observant Judaism for relief from life's responsibilities. They will be very disappointed. Although there is structure and parameters defined by Jewish law to our lives, most of our important decisions involve individual thought and judgment (and just the right dose of inner torment).
Rabbi Weinberg gave us an important gift that day. He would not allow us to cede our judgment to someone else. He would not allow us to forfeit our independence. He would not allow us to relinquish our responsibility.
On my first day of law school (about 100 years ago now), one of our professors told us that their goal was to train us to think like a lawyer. Rabbi Weinberg taught us to think like a Jew, to realize and focus our sense of responsibility for others. He taught us that only through the exercise of independent thought and judgment will we ever fully realize our potential, will we ever be fully human and fully in the image of God. And he constantly reminded us that the natural outcome of thinking like a Jew is to take responsibility for our brothers and sisters wherever they may be, their spiritual existence and their physical survival.