Torah Mussar Mindfulness: Bereishit is Offered to Us by God to Learn the Middah of Responsibility/Acharayut (אחריות)

Buddhism: Any act or state or willing which removes suffering and leads to nirvana is responsibility. (

Judaism/Mussar: Responsibility in Hebrew (acharayut) the tradition shares has two root meanings: achar (later) and acher (other).
The first, achar, touches on the notion of responsibility in time: every word, thought, deed has its “after” — its consequence. Human beings are responsible for the consequences for their actions. Thus, in Mussar, to practice toward holiness, we practice to become more skilled at anticipating the consequences of our actions and taking responsibility for the details in all the areas where we make choices (so that we do not cause suffering).

How do we become more skilled at anticipating the consequences of our actions? Daily Mussar Mindfulness practice. Join us in a Mussar group/Va’ad with master teacher Rabbi Chasya and you will learn how to practice Mussar so that you become more skilled in responsibility (be in touch at

The second root meaning, acher (other), is the notion of responsibility to others, of bearing the burden of the other: as Rabbi Simcha Zissel says, “to diligently seek the benefit of the other in every possible way.” In the act of caring for the other, one’s focus and development of one’s mind and heart realize the soul’s destiny (quote from Chochmah U’Mussar, translation from Rabbi Ira Stone in his book, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar).

Our tradition holds that our ancestors occupied themselves as shepherds with intention because they wanted to accustom themselves to bear the burden even of the simple creatures and all the more so of fellow human beings. Thus, we have the story of our ancestor and prophet Moshe, who when a shepherd of Yitro, his father-in-law, ran after a lamb who fled only to find it at a watering hole where the lamb had stopped to drink. When Moshe arrived, he said: “I didn’t know you fled on account of thirst. You are so exhausted!” He lifted him on his shoulders and walked.” It is for this very behavior that God responds with such joy: “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such overwhelming love – by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of My sheep, Israel.” (Bereshit Rabbah 2:2) (

This is in contrast to Cain in our Torah portion/parasha Bereshit (Genesis) this past Shabbat, who chose not to be a shepherd. After struggles with jealousy, Cain murders his brother Hevel, who was a shepherd and whose offering to God was regarded. After murdering his brother, the first recorded murder in the Torah and in our people’s history, Cain does not take responsibility. He actually disidentifies with the act of responsibility when confronted by God. God asks, “Where is your brother Hevel?” Cain first lies by stating he does not know. Then he rebels with his statement: “Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis/Bereshit 4:9). (

So, we learn from these examples that responsibility is when:

1) one considers the consequences of one’s behavior so that one do not act in harmful ways toward others (Cain chooses not to consider the consequences of acting out his jealousy despite being warned by Hashem/God to do so (see verse 7); and

2) one actually considers ways to be of benefit to others, to bear the burden, and to act on it (think of Moshe with his kind words to the lamb and then lifting the lamb and carrying the lamb home).

We engage in daily practice to make the effort to bear the burdens of others as a conscious, deliberate practice. Each act of support you undertake is an opportunity to develop more mindfulness and finer sensitivity, to strengthen your middah of responsibility.

So, how do those of us who are not shepherds and have no intention of becoming a shepherd engage in life choices and careers that foster the heart that desires to bear the burden of the other? Again, it is in a daily Mussar Mindfulness practice, where we bring awareness that this is a middah/soul-trait (responsibility) that we want to cultivate because we intuit that it is our soul’s purpose to be of benefit to others, to bring God’s Good to others as Rav Shimon Shkop instructs in his Introduction to Shaarei Yosher (see Rabbi Micha Berger’s Widen Your Tent).

The very states and middot that drive us away from responsibility, that indeed cause us and others suffering, are guilt and low self-esteem, which in Mussar means too much of the middah of Humility/Anava, that it is not balanced. Can we interpret Cain, who murder his brother, as someone who had low self-esteem, too much Humility? After God paid no heed to Cain’s offering, Cain allowed himself to enter a state of anger and low self-worth, describes as “his face fell (וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ פָּנָֽיו) (verse 4:5:

There was a rise of heat, of fury and then a fall in the embodied experience of Cain. The fall is a depression, an embodiment of low self-esteem, of too much Humility that Cain internalizes the rejection by God of his offering as a rejection of the self.

And how does Hashem counsel Cain? To do good; to cause good, the Hiphil is used: הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת. To move the body in deed: If you do good, and in doing so, there is שְׂאֵ֔ת uplift, there is dignity. Indeed, there is healthy, balanced Humility, which leads to more well-balanced deeds of Responsibility.

How about the lack of responsibility of Chava and Adam, who passed the buck from self-to-”the woman you gave to be with me” (verse 3:12) to self-to-the serpent who “seduced me”? Is it not guilt manifesting its will when we cannot even use “I” statements and take verbal responsibility? How about, “Yes, I ate the fruit.” “Yes, you told me not to” (only Adam can truly say this as it is evident from the Biblical text that God did not command Chava directly.) She must have learned this directive from Adam, which indicates a lack of responsibility on the part of God who should have commanded Chava directly. We will not discuss this further now, but should not the Knower-of-All have foreseen the consequence of not commanding Chava directly? Did Hashem not anticipate the consequences of the lack of his behavior? Similarly, did not Hashem anticipate what not paying heed to Cain’s offering would cause? To practice Giving the Benefit of the Doubt to God, certainly we can leave space for God anticipating the negative reaction of Chava and Cain AND also leaving room for their own responsibility for their behavior, their own free-will. God is not responsible for the choice of their behavior. More on this later…

So, I close with a thought of what you can also learn from this parasha and begin to internalize as your compass in life. We are told:

When the LORD God made earth and heaven—when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no human to till the soil, but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth—the LORD God formed the human being b Heb. ’adam. from the dust of the earth. cHeb. ’adamah. God blew into adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and adam became a living being.

וְהָאָ֖רֶץ בְּהִבָּֽרְאָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם עֲשׂ֛וֹת יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶ֥רֶץ וְשָׁמָֽיִם׃
וְכֹ֣ל ׀ שִׂ֣יחַ הַשָּׂדֶ֗ה טֶ֚רֶם יִֽהְיֶ֣ה בָאָ֔רֶץ וְל־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה טֶ֣רֶם יִצְמָ֑ח כִּי֩ לֹ֨א הִמְטִ֜יר יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאָדָ֣ם אַ֔יִן לַֽעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃
וְאֵ֖ד יַֽעֲלֶ֣ה מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְהִשְׁקָ֖ה אֶֽת־ל־פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃
וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃

God has not yet sent rain because there was no human to till the soil. Meaning, we are intimately interconnected to the creation of the field, the grasses, the earth, and the swelling waters, and without them, without the swelling waters and the earth/the adamah, human would not have been created. We are of the earth and water, gifts from God, as well have the breath of the Eternal One. When we forget this, when we choose to respond to states and willing and unbalanced middot that cause harm to the earth, to the ground, to the water, we are harming ourselves too. Indeed, we are forsaking awareness of the consequences of our behavior that will cause the breath of the Eternal One to leave us and eventually depart from this earth too.

All the days of my comprehending Torah, I couldn’t understand or accept that Hashem had destroyed the earth, all the animals and shrubs, indeed all the living beings when Hashem caused the flood because of the increase in human’s wickedness on earth (verse 6:5) (

It is only now that I have been granted the understanding that because of this intimate interconnectedness, this co-dependence, this co-creation, earth/adamah, animal, and human/adam cannot exist without each other, and when the human acted out on all its evil impulses, (as described in the Torah/Hebrew Bible and in our Aggadot/Legends) thereby destroying earth, animals and other humans, the consequence was God obliterating this creation. Indeed, this was an act caused by humans who chose not to see the consequences of their behavior, chose not to take responsibility.

Here is my call, fellow humans: choose to foresee the consequences of your behavior; choose the practice of responsibility.

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