Responsibility From Burden to Blessing

He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. - Pirkei Avot 2

An old man was walking on the beach when he noticed a young girl picking up a starfish stranded by the retreating tide, and throwing it back into the sea.

He went up to her and asked why she was doing this. She replied that the starfish would die if left exposed to the morning sun.

He laughed.

‘But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish. You will not be able to save them all.

But the young girl, determined to make a difference, looked at the starfish in her hand and tossed it safely in the waves.

‘To this one’, she said, ‘it makes a difference.’

What if...

We felt that all of our actions, whether small or supreme, could make a difference?

We took responsibility for our friends as well as strangers, because we were all interconnected?

We felt that responsibility was a blessing rather than a curse?

Taking responsibility was not just about owning up, but also about stepping up?

In this spark we will explore the value of responsibility.

We will ask, what does it mean to choose responsibility as well as inherit it and what are the conditions that allow ourselves and others to feel accountable? And finally, how can we feel empowered to make a difference and internalize the beauty in our duty?

Public Service Announcement

Being responsible for yourself and others is hard work. And knowing how to juggle and prioritize your responsibilities can be exhausting. We can feel burdened by our to-do lists and our mistakes.

So let’s start by purging.


Ayeka? Where are you?

Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life — is the source from which self-respect springs. - Joan Didion, On Self-Respect

As Adam and Eve cower behind the bushes in the Garden of Eden, with fig leaves precariously covering their nude bodies, God asks them a simple yet profound question. “Ayeka? – Where are you?” In their response, Adam and Eve both deny their actions as their own and insist that eating from the tree of knowledge was not their fault. Adam blames Eve. And Eve blames the serpent.

We have all heard it before. “It isn’t my fault. “It wasn’t me!”

In Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, Tavris and Aronson argue that when we make mistakes we must justify our actions by calming the disharmony between our ideal self and actual self. In order to do so, we create stories that relinquish us of responsibility and restore our belief that we are smart, moral, and right.

This dissonance that we often feel can cause us to evade responsibility and blame others. But, examining our actions and owning up to them can actually cause a sense of relief and a positive relationship towards responsibility.

According to Tal Ben-Shahar, accepting personal responsibility is the first step towards developing a healthy sense of self. How can claiming personal responsibility change the ways that you relate to both yourself and others?

20 minutes

We have all acted out of impulse and then evaded responsibility for our actions. What happens when you start noticing your behaviors and naming them? How can it help you become more responsible towards yourself and others?

In this exercise, analyze when you have behaved in a questionable way and try to see how you could have behaved differently in that moment.

Once you have finished, follow it up by spinning the Spiritual Chore Wheel of Responsibility. See how you can challenge yourself and others to experiment with new expressions of responsibility.


Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” - (Genesis 4:10)

Following Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden of Eden, God asks another question: Cain, where is your brother Abel? Cain responds with a question: “Am I my brother’s keep?”

When Cain disavows his responsibility, God immediately knows of Cain’s murderous actions. God immediately rebounds with another question: What have you done?

This game of rhetorical ping pong begs the reader to intervene and shout back to the text:


The text compels us to articulate this fundamental moral principle for ourselves.

But who are your brothers and sisters? Who do you feel responsible for and who is within your universe of obligation?

How far and wide does your circle of obligation extend?

Are they the people within your family, your town, your city, your country? For whom do you feel responsible?

20 minutes

In this activity, you will have an opportunity to map out your universe of obligation. Once you have filled it out, take a look at two Jewish sources to see how they can help you further think about how far your universe of obligations extends.


We Are All Descendants of Adam

Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Genesis 4:16)

The violence and flight of Cain, necessitated a new beginning. The Torah starts human history over again.

And yet, although Cain is banished, he marries and his lineage is recounted in the Torah and the text reminds us that we are all descendants of Adam. Like Adam and Cain, we can feel the need to run away from responsibility, to hide from it and to look the other way.

But what propels us forward? What are the conditions that cause us to stand at the edge of the sea and toss the starfish back in? And how can we urge others to stop, pay attention and take responsibility alongside us?

10 minutes

Our partners at Repair the World are standing up and praying attention by serving the moment. The Serve the Moment initiative believes that everyone is responsible to make a more compassionate and just world.

Giving of your time is one way to take responsibility for others. But, there are other ways too!

Spin the wheel to meet the great organizations partnering with Serve the Moment. Click on the chosen organization to visit their website and ask yourself these questions:
  1. How does this organization take responsibility for our world?
  2. What is a way for you to take response-ability?
  3. How can you contribute in a way that best activates your own skills and talents?

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the traditional vidui (confessional prayer) is in first person plural. We have abused, betrayed, deceived. We have oppressed others, acted wickedly. No one has individually done all of the misdeeds on the list, but we recite in the plural because our fallibility, and our forgiveness, is fully shared.

But responsibility begins with the individual and echoes out. What would it look like to include our own first person confessions around the things that we have done? What would I like to own up to? And how can we transform our mistakes into responsibility?

As we prepare for our year ahead, what do we want to change about our actions in order to take responsibility and bring about change? What do we want to fess up to, so that we can own our behavior and do better?

10 minutes

As we prepare for our year ahead, what do we want to change about our actions in order to take responsibility and bring about change? What do we want to fess up to, so that we can own our behavior and do better?

As we stand next to the little girl holding the starfish at the edge of the sea, let’s carefully join in by picking one up and tossing it in.

Our actions can bring about change and our burdens can turn into blessings.

As we hear the divine voice call forth Ayeka, 'where are you', may we emerge from our hiding places and firmly answer, we are here. We are ready to heed the call. We are ready to help because like the proverbial butterfly, when we flap our wings, we can catalyze change beyond ourselves.

Our world depends upon us.

We would love to hear your feedback on this Value Spark. Please click here to share your thoughts with us.

Feel free to share and learn this Value Spark with your friends, family, students and colleagues.

Curious about additional Value Sparks? Click here to view the full series.

Created By


Created with an image by Bastien Ruhland - "untitled image"