It may be useful to look at responsibility in two ways; being responsible for the consequences of my own actions and taking responsibility for the well being of others. There are limits to both but these limits are different in nature.
The Hebrew word for responsibility is “achrayut”, which has at its root, “Aleph-Chet-Raysh.” Depending on how this root is vocalized it has two different meanings that correspond to the two types of responsibility mentioned above.
“Achar” means “after,” so that the middah relates to being responsible for the consequences of my actions. In this case there must be limits since control is often out of my hands and yet the feelings of being overburdened are always present. In Jewish civil law one is only liable for damages caused directly, not by the extended consequences of one's actions. It’s important to know that I am not responsible for everything that happens in the world.
“Acher” means “other,” which relates to taking responsibility for the well-being of others. On the one hand it is a great virtue to take responsibility for as many people as possible. I think we ultimately want to have awareness of and caring for everyone. Rabbi Riskin would tell me that as a rabbi had achrayut for every Jew. I find this a useful idea - it pushes me to think more broadly about people and my role in community. However, I need to have wisdom and humility about the limits to what I can do. I cannot spread myself too thin or allow myself to feel so overwhelmed that I cannot effectively function. For example, in the Torah, Moshe worked day and night to manage Israel and judge legal disputes. Finally, his father-in-law, Yitro, proposed a hierarchical legal system that would still hold Moses accountable for all decisions yet free up some of his time to manage other aspects of moving a people through a wilderness. Yitro guided him to delegate in order to prevent utter exhaustion.
The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 54b) says (this is a paraphrase), "If one can protest wrongdoing in ones family and does not - he is held responsible for the wrongdoing; If one can protest wrongdoing in his city and does not - he is held responsible for the wrongdoing; If one can protest wrongdoing anywhere in the world and does not - he is held responsible for the wrongdoing." Responsibility knows no bounds, however, even the Talmud seems to differentiate based on proximity of influence. Other disciplines speak of this in terms of sphere of concern and sphere of influence. While we want to have a very expansive sphere of concern, if we try to act on that concern outside of our sphere of influence we enter the realm of taking too much responsibility.
It may be useful to look at middot related to responsibility. For example, perhaps action or inaction is more an issue of humility or an imbalance of chesed (kindness) than responsibility. If someone feels that they take on too much responsibility and are worn down trying to fix everything - I would ask them to look at their humility. Is this person taking too much space in other people’s lieves? Thinking that s/he can take so much space is arrogance. Chesed is another middah to explore. Does this person think s/he always needs to be giving? Where is the gevura (boundaries)? Such a person may need to focus on balancing chesed and gevura to acheive tiferet – beautiful balance.
Finally, in Pirke Avot/Ethics of Our Ancestors we learn that it is not our obligation to complete the work, but neither are we free to walk away. In other words, doing a part of what needs to be done, according to this mishna, is sufficient. My challenge is to know when I have truly done my best and have nothing left to give. Again, it’s a question of balance.
Rabbi David Jaffe