Despite the justification for being irresponsible, as popularized in the 1950’s song “Call Me Irresponsible,” acting responsibly and living up to a commitment is among the most praiseworthy of human behaviors. People who are responsible are trusted by others, land and keep good jobs, have more stable relationships and in general lead more fulfilling, happy lives. Being responsible is also a Torah value, as exemplified to the highest degree by Yehuda in this week’s Parsha.
At the opening of the Parsha, as the drama between Yosef and his brothers was reaching its climax, Yehuda declares to Yosef: (44:30-32) If I return to my father without Binyamin he will die on the spot (from the shock of assuming Binyamin had passed away). Why? Because I guaranteed his (Binyamin’s) safe return. The Seforno wonders how could Yaakov have such a reaction without asking Yehuda first – what happened? He answers that Yehuda was making the point to Yosef, that on account of the fact that Yehuda took responsibility for Binyamin’s safe return, once Yaakov saw that Binyamin was not with Yehuda, it could only be because Binyamin was no longer alive – because if he was, Yehuda would not have returned without him. Therefore the only explanation for Binyamin’s absence was – that he was dead.
This is the extent to which one needs to take responsibility. If one is committed to see a project or obligation through to its completion, he or she will do whatever is necessary (as long as it is Halachically permissible) to get the job done. Excuses serve no purpose when one is intent on being true to his promise. A person needs to be passionate, determined and focused on achieving the goal – otherwise obstacles along the way will preclude completion of the task.
The ability to fulfill a promise depends on the level of commitment in a person’s heart at the time the promise is made. When a child asks a parent for a treat or privilege, and the parent mumbles, “sure, later” – the reason why he or she won’t make good on his or her word is because the promise was made to get through the moment – it was not a deep felt or a serious intention. The challenge to fulfilling a commitment is not so much in the follow through as it is in the original intent. (See also Seforno, Bereishis 12:5)
How do we teach children to keep commitments, to fulfill promises? The strongest influence is always the personal example of those who are nearest and dearest. Parents should make it a habit of not making promises in response to children’s requests. Train yourself to say “I’ll try.” Promises should be reserved for special situations, and then make the commitment only with a clear understanding of the ramifications and with a strong commitment to carry through.
When children promise you to fulfill some request or instruction – (“I promise, Mommy”) train them to say instead “I will try my best.” (Routine requests need to be fulfilled without promises.) When your child makes a commitment to do something, help him or her focus on what they are saying, and guide them to analyze if they understand what they are promising, and if they have the resources and wherewithal to carry through. Once that is in place, help the child live up to the commitment by insisting he or she fulfill the promise, with the parent helping minimally as needed.
To become as dependable as the great Yehuda may be beyond us, but as truthful, G-d fearing Jews, our word must become as good as gold, and our commitments must be ones that our children can depend on. That will be our greatest guarantor that we will then be able to rely on our children’s word.
Best wishes for a dependably wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann