Human Duties

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what “duty” means, especially as it relates to Judaism. I keep coming back to my grandfather as the answer. We called him Apa in my family because, as a child, I couldn’t properly articulate the Dutch word “opa” for grandpa. The name stuck, and he became Apa to my sisters and my cousins too.

Apa loomed large in my childhood and remains one of the most important connections to my faith. The island we grew up on was small and our family was—and remains—close in proximity and familiarity. We had dinner and lunch together most Shabbatot and saw each other
at least three times a week.

Curaçao is miniscule. The entire population could fit in an American university’s football stadium. Whenever we left his home, my grandfather would make it a point to be polite to everyone who came his way. He shared that every person had a story, a voice, and a connection to someone else. I remember once a man approached him on the street and seemed upset. My grandfather listened and nodded. I didn’t hear or understand most of the conversation, but as the man walked away, they were markedly less angry.

Later, my grandfather explained that this person had been provoked by circumstances outside anyone’s control. They were mad that nobody had taken the time to listen to them—they had been ignored. My grandfather may not have been able to change this man’s situation, but he could pay attention, empathize, and console him. There were many other instances where people would come up to my grandfather while we were out together. I asked him once why
he spoke to all these people, effectively strangers, who, even on our small island, we might never see again. He shared something that stuck with me. We may not always agree with other people’s choices, ideas, or beliefs, but they are as human as we are, and respecting that basic fact makes all the difference.

Apa also recognized that our lives were privileged. We had good homes, loving parents, and attended good schools. He insisted that we never take any of these blessings for granted. Our family has called this rock in the southern Caribbean our home for more than ten generations. In his eyes, we had a responsibility to make sure that it remained a
home for future generations too. This involved organizing a circus for children in other neighbourhoods, spending time with folks who had intellectual disabilities, cleaning up beaches, and various other projects that he orchestrated. This work with my grandfather always centred on finding ways to positively impact our home, strengthening that sense of community, and giving back often.

My grandfather was obsessed with education. He expected us to do well and soak up every moment in the classroom. He wanted us to ask questions, calculate difficult sums, memorize speeches and dates. He treated our grades like jobs and would take massive pride at report
cards that had strong showings. At first, the focus was always on mathematics, “essential to understand.” But as we grew older, he would care more and more about our grasp of the humanities, economics, and philosophy.

Apa took me to synagogue most weekends and we spent a lot of time together leading up to my bar mitzvah. I enjoyed those moments alone because he would talk to me like I was an adult. My opinions mattered to him, even if they weren’t fully formed. He would interrogate and ask me about my understanding of the world, the relationship we had with the people around us, and my convictions.

As I grew older, I spent a lot of time speaking one-on-one with him. At the time, most of these conversations felt simple—we would talk about what had happened in the news, what I had learned in school, or what had been discussed at his dining room table. After watching any movie, he would ask questions about its message or morals. Even if there wasn’t anything discernibly insightful from the cartoon that had played out on the big screen. These
interrogations were critical—he would ask questions to clarify, to philosophize—a Socratic dialogue with teenagers and pre-teens in the back seat of his car.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see a pattern. My grandfather valued learning, not simply in the classroom. The world had many lessons to teach us, but I needed to be open to receiving them, discussing them, and finding ways to incorporate them into my life.

I realize—either unintentionally or intentionally—that I think about him when trying to conceptualize duty because of what he left behind. His legacy is these duties, these values that guide me: Every person should be treated with decency and respect; you should leave your home better than you found it; and learn and ask questions always.

My grandfather was a pillar in our family and our community. I miss him every day. There are still questions about duty that he would want me to examine if he was reading this essay. Where does this obligation to other humans come from? How do we continue making our homes a better place for the people we leave behind? Are these duties innately Jewish? Or are they simply human? Where do duties end and rights begin?

I don’t know if Apa would have an answer to all of these questions, but
he’d be very happy that they had been asked.

Source: Human Rights - written by young jews from 40 countries with support of B'nai B'rith International Portugal and International Observatory of Human Rights