Rights vs. Obligations

There are no rights in the Bible, there are commandments, obligations, and responsibilities, but no rights.

Rights are a newer, enlightenment idea, and they are a good thing, but when they are all we have, we get caught up in the ‘I voice’ and lose some perspective.

In the biblical worldview, I do not have the right to live, rather, you are commanded to not kill. I do not have the right to property, you are commanded to not steal. I do not have the right to a fair trial, you are commanded to establish courts and justice justice you must pursue. I do not have the right to an education, you have the obligation to teach. I do not have the right to healthcare, you are obligated to heal the sick. I do not have a right to proper housing, you have the obligation to house the homeless. I do not have the right to eat, you are commanded to feed the hungry.

I have the right to not be at Yom Kippur services, we all have the obligation to be at Yom Kippur services.

The difference between rights and obligations is not mere semantics. When we think through the lens of rights, we are thinking in the first person singular, I. I am the subject, the first reference point is me. I have a right to healthcare, housing, and food. When we think through the lens of obligations, the reference point is the other: The sick, the homeless, and the hungry.

Today is not about you, it’s about us. There is no I in Yom Kippur. Well, not in the Hebrew spelling. Today is not about me, it’s not about you, the starting point is not our individual sins. The voice of the liturgy today is the voice of we, and how we relate to each other. Today we focus on how we are doing, how are we doing when it comes to the obligations that undergird our collective life?

The mussar Rabbi Ira Stone of Philadelphia teaches that to be Jewish is to act on your infinite obligation to the other, and that joy lives in that obligation. The infinite obligation that does not ask, ‘what will happen to me if I act,’ rather, it asks, ‘what will happen to the other if I do not act.’

The check-in we are undergoing today is how are we doing as we relate to the infinite You. Are we fulfilling our obligations, will we be inscribed in the book of life?

Rabbi Michael Pollack