Shabbat-Table Talks: Parashat Vayigash

By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil

Value: Responsibility

One of the most important values we can teach our children is responsibility for other people. People taking responsibility for others build our families, communities and societies. Engage your children in a talk about responsibility by speaking about responsibilities that you have towards another in each of the spheres. Think about ways that each person can act responsibly in their own context.

Torah Text: Genesis 44:32-34

For your servant pledged himself for the lad to my father, saying: If I do not bring him back to you, I will be culpable for sin against my father all the days (to come). So now, pray let your servant stay instead of the lad, as servant to my lord, but let the lad go up with his brothers! For how can I go up to my father, when the lad is not with me? Then would I see the ill-fortune that would come upon my father! (44:32-34; SB)


  1. Speak about the context of the above plea. Ideally, have your children give the details, with you filling in what is important.
  2. The background is that Ya’aqob only agreed to let Binyamin go to Misrayim, to fulfill the viceroy’s (Yosef in disguise) demand. Binyamin was framed by the viceroy (Yosef) and was being accused of stealing Yosef’s goblet. He would have to remain as the viceroy’s servant.

  3. Ask: Why did Yehuda offer himself instead of his brother? [Because he promised his father that he would bring him back.] Why did he pledge himself to his father to begin with? Why did he stand up and take responsibility when his father refused to send Binyamin back to Egypt? (see Genesis 43:9 and its context.) [Possible answers: Yehuda took responsibility initially because if he had not there would have been much more suffering (his family would have starved.). He displayed true leadership qualities by standing up and doing what had to be done, even though he was not specifically assigned to do it. Once he had given his word to his father he did everything in his power to fulfill that pledge. ]
  4. Define responsibility: (Actually get out a dictionary and look it up. Teaching the value of using reference books. Oh, so you do not know where your dictionary is? Perhaps it is time to buy a new one.) What is the Hebrew word for responsibility (literally—pledge=’areb: which is similar for the word meaning "to mix." What is getting mixed when you take responsibility? The word "’areb" can also mean a guarantor of a loan. Define the function of a guarantor.
  5. Get your children to discuss an area that they take responsibility. Taking care of a younger brother or sister. Caring for a pet. Protecting someone from harm.
  6. Give examples of where you take responsibility. (In business, in community, with friends and family)
  7. Brainstorm about other areas where you can take responsibility.
  8. Our Sages have told us: Kol yisrael ‘arebim zeh bazzeh. "All Israel are responsible for one another." It is understood specifically in a context where one can rebuke another and improve him. How far does this extend?
  9. What are the responsibilities to ourselves? To our family members? To our neighborhood? To our community? To our society? To the generations to come?
  10. Responsibility and Social Justice. (Excerpted from Educating for Character, Thomas Lickona Bantam Books 1991 pp.318-322)

Another dimension to community service is called to mind by the following parable:

A man saw a person drowning in a river and dove in to save him. The next day, another person was swept down the river, and once more the courageous bystander plunged into the waters to save the struggling victim.

The following day, there were three people drowning, and this time the bystander had to get help to make the rescues. The day after that ten people needed saving, and many citizens had to join the rescue effort. Soon the river was full of drowning people, and the whole town worked ceaselessly to save them.

Finally someone said, "We should go upriver to find out where all these drowning people are coming from." But others answered, "we can’t—we’re too busy saving lives down here.

Educating students to care about others ultimately means educating them in social justice. That means going upriver to find the source of the problem...

Resources for educating students in social justice are available to teachers. Educating for Citizen Action, by Professor Fred Newman of the University of Wisconsin, lays out for students the steps and skills for analyzing and attacking a social problem…

In his prophetic book Democracy in America, nineteenth-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville said that American democracy, for all of its strengths, tended to foster individualism because of its emphasis on personal freedom. That individualism, Tocqueville said, fist saps the virtues of public life and ends in pure selfishness…

Teaching students to be caring, public-spirited citizens—in their school, community, nation, and world—is one of the most promising antidotes to the selfish individualism that afflicts our culture. This participatory citizenship education has students learn to care by giving care…

It teaches them to pay attention to the social conditions that bring about suffering and to use the political system to create a more just society and world. And it teaches the truth of Edmund Burke’s famous statement some two centuries ago: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing."

10) Taking responsibility for others binds us to them and makes a stronger, more caring society. It can serve as an example to others as well. Create a chain reaction of caring and responsibility.


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