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A Life-Changing Question: For Whom Are We Responsible?

A Life-Changing Question: For Whom Are We Responsible?

Before leaving for 10 of the most memorable days of my life with Mitzvah Corps Costa Rica, Rabbi Asher Knight left my fellow participantds and me with an important question to consider throughout our trip: For whom are we responsible?

As a group of teenagers, we went into the trip mostly just wanting to be responsible for having an awesome vacation. When we were asked what we were looking forward to the most, our answers included zip-lining, going to the beach, and seeing monkeys. While most of those things went wonderfully (alas, we didn’t see any monkeys), if I could go back in time, I would have to change my answer.

For whom are we responsible?

If I could give my answer again, I would talk about becoming a family with nearly 20 strangers during the course of two weeks. In reality, it took us maybe two hours. The near-instant bond we shared was something so incredible that I am still in disbelief, nearly a month later. Even before we started team bonding activities, we all clicked with each other, and it was amazing to see how it affected our trip. Changing hotels? It didn’t matter who we roomed with, because we were sure to have a great time. Four-hour bus ride? Not a problem, because we’d play some games and have a fluid conversation that involved everybody in the group, making sure no one ever felt left out. Salsa lessons? Well, it’s a good thing we were all so comfortable with each other, because none of us could dance!

It was vital to the trip that we all became friends, but the fact that we did it so quickly allowed us to become all the more vulnerable with each other. Throughout our 10 days in Costa Rica, each one of us let down our walls and discovered what it really felt like to be loved and accepted.

For whom are we responsible?

If I could give my answer again, I would talk about the hope of doing something that matters. What changed me the most during our service expedition was the time we were cleaning and scraping rust off of the fence surrounding the high school we were working on, when a funeral procession passed us. We all stopped working for a minute to stand and show our respect to the people moving to the cemetery by foot – people with tears streaming down their faces and emptiness in their hearts, who wouldn’t look at us and they kept their heads angled toward the ground. Watching them walk through the streets was the most heartbreaking thing I witnessed all summer.

Once the last of the procession passed, we went back to work. Two hours later, the people who were part of the procession began walking back to their homes, passing by us again, either holding urns or the hands of their children. This time, though, they actually looked at us and watched as we scrubbed dirt off of a wire fence - and they smiled. For whatever reason, seeing us work gave them so much joy that they smiled during a moment when they were supposed to be sad.

That’s what shocked me so much. We weren’t in Costa Rica to house the homeless or to feed the hungry. We were just painting a fence and building a trail. Yet for some reason, the community we were helping was so appreciative or our work that the people of La Fortuna put aside all their own problems just to tell us thank you, that we were doing a great job. That was the moment that I knew we really were making a difference.

For whom are we responsible?

If I could give my answer again, I would talk about being able to teach and learn from my new friends. One of the things that changed me was being given the opportunity to give a presentation to my peers with two of my fellow group members about gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and romantic attraction (which we felt was very important, considering the discrimination the LGBT community faces, even with the legalization of marriage equality.) Instead of responding with aversion or apathy, my new friends asked countless questions that arose out of curiosity and interest.

After our presentation, our group moved on to a different activity, going around in a circle so that we could each stated an “oy and joy” of the day. One of my group members’ "joy" responses was that she thought it was amazing that everybody was so accepting; she told us she hoped that she could one day be as open-minded as the rest of us. There is no way to describe the feelings I had when my friend said that, except to say that nothing else has ever inspired me so much in my life.

So for to whom are we responsible?  

We are responsible for anybody to whom we can extend love and acceptance, whether we think they really need it or not. We are responsible for anybody with whom we can create a happy memory. We are responsible for anybody we come across who is sad. We are responsible for those who need more beauty in their lives. We are responsible for those who want to learn. We are responsible for ourselves in that we are constantly bettering who we are, and in that we are making sure that we are taking the responsibility of helping others. We are responsible for everybody we have the potential to affect, directly or indirectly.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shenatan lanu hizdamnut l’taken et ha’olam - Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us the opportunity to heal the world.

Deborah Pehr is a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, TX.

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