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Not My Trash, Not My Problem

01/12/2023 02:46:14 PM

Jan12

When I was a counselor at Ramah Darom, we always ate at least one or two meals a week on the field outside the dining hall. We’d have a pizza lunch, or a BBQ dinner, and we would sit with our bunks and our campers under the cloudy summer skies. It was a nice experience that had an unfortunate downside of producing a lot of trash that was unclaimed towards the end of the meal. So, the camp would take a moment before finishing up with announcements and the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) to have everyone find a few pieces of trash to throw away – even if it wasn’t your own trash. It was a good policy though hard to enforce as the campers didn’t like to throw away trash that they didn’t make. Every camper and staff seemed to think that they cleaned up after themselves – yet, the campers and staff evidently made quite the mess and needed to take responsibility for their collective detritus. 

In Social Psychology, this reluctance of the campers to clean up the mess is an example concept of “The Diffusion of Responsibility.” This term is used to explain that people are less likely to take responsibility for actions if they feel that someone else in the group could and should take action. Thus, I could pick up the litter, but there are other people who could as well, and in fact the person who made the mess in the first place should be the one to clean it. The responsibility gets shifted from the person who sees to trash back to some other member of the group. And if everyone in the group feels that way, then you are left with a messy field. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Parshat Sh’mot, it seems that the reluctant prophet Moses has an experience with the diffusion of responsibility. Moses experiences God at the burning bush and God commands Moses to take responsibility and demand that Pharoah let the Israelites worship God in the wilderness. But Moses doesn’t want to speak truth to power and refuses God over and over, and demands that God send someone else! Moses doesn’t want the responsibility – he wants someone else to do the responsible and God-commanded thing. 

What’s ironic about Moses’s reluctance is that Moses doesn’t feel that he is qualified to free the Israelites and be God’s agent, yet there is no better person to do the job. Who better to shepherd God’s people to freedom than the only Israelite shepherd who has tasted freedom? Moreover, how perfect is the fact that the agent of God is excessively humble and won’t allow his own ego to distract the Israelites from recognizing that God is the true miracle worker. Yet, Moses still refuses and tries to place the responsibility elsewhere. 

As we reflect on Moses’s deflection of responsibility, I can’t help but think of our own tendencies to leave the responsible thing for others. I can’t help but reflect on the pieces of litter I have walked over, the panhandler I leave for others to take care of, or the tragedies I am too busy to care about. Someone else will take care of it. Someone else will speak up. Someone else will take action. But perhaps, like Moses, we are the best people for the job. Perhaps even though we might not have made the mess, perhaps we have the ability and opportunity to clean it up. And if we all are able to add our own drop to the bucket, if we are all able to clean up the five pieces of trash around us, then perhaps we’ll leave the world much cleaner and better than how we currently find it.  

Shabbat Shalom

Sun, January 29 2023 7 Shevat 5783