By Rabbi Yaakov (Jack) Bieler
Establishing in Parashat Beraishit the importance of accepting responsibility for one’s actions.
In his essay on Parashat Beraishit, “Taking Responsibility” (Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Maggid and the Orthodox Union, Jerusalem, 2015,, pp. 3-6), R. Jonathan Sacks invokes a theme that he returns to in his essay on Parashat Ha’azinu, “A Leader’s Call to Responsibility” (pp. 293-7) (see “Proactively Accepting and Taking Responsibility”). The two stories that he focusses upon in his Beraishit essay involve Adam and Chava on the one hand, and Kayin and Hevel on the other. Concerning the former pair of transgressors, each refused to accept personal responsibility for the sin of eating from the prohibited Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that each committed:
12 And the man said: The woman whom Thou Gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. 13 And the LORD God Said unto the woman: What is this thou hast done? And the woman said: The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
In contrast to Adam and Chava’s excuses where someone else was blamed for causing them to sin, examples of a failure to acknowledge the Talmudic principle, “Ein Shliach LeDevar Aveira” (there is no surrogate when it comes to transgressing, i.e., one is expected to take responsibility for one’s own actions), Kayin, after killing his brother, does not attribute the cause of his action to someone else, but rather questions why he should be at all concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself, this time an abdication of moral responsibility:
And the LORD Said unto Kayin: Where is Hevel thy brother? And he said: I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?
A dramatic counter example in Parashat Shemot.
R. Sacks contends that particularly the case of Kayin is later refuted by a specific reading of the biblical text describing a situation in which Moshe found himself, and the action that he decided to take as a result:
11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. 12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.
Contrary to the generally accepted reading of this passage to the effect that Moshe was making sure that what he was about to do would be unobserved, R. Sacks insists that it was highly unlikely that at a building site, there wouldn’t be other witnesses. Therefore, what the Tora is suggesting is that Moshe noted that those who saw what was transpiring were not going to intercede on behalf of the victim of the taskmaster’s vicious blows. It stood to reason that it was unlikely that any Egyptian would come to the rescue of a slave being disciplined. And as for other Jews, they were determined not to draw attention to themselves and thereby become the next targets of intimidation and persecution. R. Sacks argues that it is specifically “leaders” who act in a time of need, sometimes throwing undo caution to the wind, while others who constitute “followers” opt to remain passive.
Protesting to God over what appears to be Divine Indifference to human suffering.
Theologically, within the frameworks of some religions, accepting difficult circumstances and harsh treatment brought on by other either natural circumstances or other human beings, are qualities of saintliness and self-sacrifice, demonstrating how one is accepting of Divine Decrees. However, R. Sacks insists, that Judaism typically protests maltreatment that ostensibly appears to stem from God’s Decisions, and is not prepared to accept what appears to be God’s Decision to allow such persecution and suffering to continue. He cites several biblical examples:
That be far from Thee to Do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth Do justly? (Avraham protesting God’s Intention to Destroy Sodom and Amora.)
And Moshe returned unto the LORD, and said: Lord, wherefore hast Thou Dealt ill with this people? Why is it that Thou hast Sent me? (Moshe complaining following his first unsuccessful confrontation with Pharoah that instead of redeeming the people, his intervention as a representative of God has resulted in a deterioration of the situation in which the Jews find themselves in Egypt.)
1 Right wouldest Thou Be, O LORD, were I to contend with Thee, yet will I reason with Thee: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they secure that deal very treacherously? (The prophet is troubled by the delay in cause-and-effect punishment for evil doers. He implies that if there were a clearer connection between sin and punishment, there would be so many fewer sinners.)
Every individual should be introspective regarding the relationship between his actions and the situations in which he finds himself.
R. Sacks quotes R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi to the effect that God’s initial question directed at Adam:
And the LORD God Called unto the man, and Said unto him: Where art thou?
is a question that every human being must ask himself as often as possible.
I first encountered this idea upon reading Chaim Grade’s classic 1954 short story, ““My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” depicting the now-secular Yiddish writer, Grade, and a Yeshiva student peer, encountering one another on three separate occasions, upon which they conducted a spirited and sharply-pointed debate regarding the pros and cons of leading a religious life. When the narrator first sees Hersh Rasseyner, he calls out to him, “How are you?” His antagonist responds, “The more important question is: ‘How are you?’” Individuals who have been deeply affected by the Mussar (ethical thought) outlook are uninterested in engaging in “small talk,” and even turns-of-phrase which ordinarily are considered simple functions of etiquette, become existential challenges and catalysts for personal introspection. When approached in this manner, all questions concerning personal identity, location and status, e.g., “Who are you?” “What is your name?” “What do you do?”, become exercises that are intended to lead to introspective “moves” resulting in the one being questioned (Eiruvin 13b) “Yepashpeish” (scrutinizing what has been done in the past) and/or “Yemashmeish” (considering the implication of plans for the future) his actions.
An important distinction between situations that directly affect oneself as opposed to those that cause consternation to others.
However, it seems to me, that there are certainly instances in the Oral Tradition of Judaism, where remaining resigned to one’s fate, even when believing that this is God’s Will, is viewed as commendable and expected. Two stark instances that come to mind are:
When R. Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the Kingship of Heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, (Devarim 6:5) “with all thy soul,” (which I interpret:) “even if He Takes thy soul.” I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfil it? (Rather than protesting his treatment at the hands of the Romans, R. Akiva viewed his situation as an opportunity to demonstrate his spiritual devotion to God.) He prolonged the word “Echad” (at the conclusion of Ibid. 6:4) until he expired while saying it. A Bat Kol (a Heavenly Voice) went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, Akiva, that thy soul has departed with the word “Echad”! The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed Be He: Such Torah, and such a reward? (He should have been) from them that die by Thy Hand, O Lord (man may be mortal, but it is an ignominious end when one dies at the hands of evil-doers). He Replied to them: Their portion is in (eternal) life (in the World to Come). A Bat Kol went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, R. Akiva, that thou art destined for the life of the World to Come.
It is related of Nachum of Gamzu that he was blind in both his eyes, his two hands and legs were amputated — and his whole body was covered with boils and he was lying in a dilapidated house on a bed the feet of which were standing in bowls of water to prevent the ants from crawling on to him. On one occasion his disciples desired to remove the bed and then clear the things out of the house, but he said to them: My children, first clear out the things (from the house) and then remove my bed for I am confident that so long as I am in the house it will not collapse. They first cleared out the things and then they removed his bed and the house (immediately) collapsed. Thereupon his disciples said to him: Master, since you are wholly righteous, why has all this befallen you? And he replied: I have brought it all upon myself. Once I was journeying on the road and was making for the house of my father-in-law and I had with m three asses, one laden with food, one with drink and one with all kinds of dainties, when a poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me: Master, give me something to eat. I replied to him: Wait until I have unloaded something from the ass. I had hardly managed to unload something from the ass when the man died (from hunger). I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed: May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon your hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated. And my mind was not at rest until I added: may my whole body be covered with boils. Thereupon his pupils exclaimed: Alas! That we see you in such a sore plight.” To this he replied: Woe would it be to me did you not see me in such a sore plight.” Why was he called Nachum of Gamzu? — Because whatever befell him he would declare: This also is for the best.
While it is apparent in both saintly cases described in the Talmud that the individuals who were subjected to terrible circumstances refused to challenge God, but rather attributed their trials to their own actions, the Ministering Angels and the disciples of R. Akiva and Nachum Ish Gamzu were not prepared to stand by without wondering aloud regarding what was transpiring regarding their teachers. Perhaps this must serve as the addendum to R. Sacks’ essay, i.e., when terrible things are taking place affecting others, a “leader” will do whatever is in his power to alleviate suffering and hardship. However, when he himself is confronted by personal challenges which appear to be beyond overcoming, he will resign himself to accepting as best as he can God’s Decree.
Originally appears on Rabbi Bieler’s blog “Contemporary Explorations of Jewish Texts and Thinkers”