Taking Responsibility For Ourselves
Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 )
What is the biggest obstacle to change?
"This mitzvah that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, 'who can ascend to the heaven or us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?'" What is the mitzvah that the Torah refers to in this verse? The Ramban writes that it is the mitzvah of teshuva (repentance); the Torah is telling us that teshuva is not something that is out of our grasp, rather it is easily attainable if only we make the effort.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz asks, if the mitzvah of teshuva is so easy to fulfil, then why are there so few people who do teshuva properly? Everyone knows that they make mistakes, so why do they not admit their error and repent?
The following Medrash about the story of Cain and Abel can help us answer this question: After Cain killed Abel, God did not punish him instantly, rather He said "where is Abel your brother?" Cain famously answered, "am I my brother's keeper?" (ibid. 4:9) The Medrash gives more details of Cain's reply: "You are the protector of all life, and You are asking me?!.. I killed him but You gave me the evil inclination, You are supposed to protect everyone and You let me kill him, You are the one that killed him… had You accepted my offering like his, I would not have been jealous of him."
Why didn't Cain do teshuva for his heinous act? Because he refused to accept culpability for his role in the murder - he even blamed it on God! We can now answer our initial question as to why so few people do teshuva properly. We are generally aware that we commit sins but there is one factor that prevents us from repenting properly, the ability to accept that the ultimate responsibility for our actions lies with us and us alone. There are many factors to which we can easily attribute our flaws; whether it be our upbringing, our natural inclinations, or our society, we find it extremely hard to accept ultimate responsibility for our failings. The prerequisite for teshuva is a recognition that 'I could have done better; I could have overcome my yetzer hara (negative inclination) and not sinned.' Without the ability to make this difficult admission we cannot begin to repent properly but with it teshuva is easily attainable.
This inability to admit our guilt lies at the core of the first and most decisive sin in human history which plagues us to this very day - that of Adam. We traditionally attribute Adam's sin to his disobeying God's instructions not to eat from the fruit, and it was this that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden of Eden with all the accompanying negative consequences. Rav Motty Berger points out that on closer analysis it is clear that they were not punished immediately after the sin. Rather, God engaged Adam in conversation, giving him the opportunity to admit his mistake. However, Adam did not accept this reprieve, instead he said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me - she gave me of the tree and I ate." Adam avoided responsibility for his sin, shifting it onto Eve and even God himself for giving her to him initially. Then God turned to Eve, also giving her a chance to repent - she too declined the offer, saying, "the serpent deceived me and I ate." Only then did God punish them for the sin. it is clear that had they taken responsibility for their actions when God confronted them, then surely the punishment would have been far lighter. Who knows how different the course of history could have been!
We see from the stories of Adam and Cain that the ability to admit one's mistakes is perhaps even more important than not sinning! Indeed we all err at some point, it is whether we can stand up and admit the truth for our actions that is the true judge of our spiritual level. It was only several hundred years after the sad beginning of history that a man arose who would shoulder the responsibility for his actions and rectify the mistake of Adam. The Tosefta says, "Why did Judah merit the Kingship? Because he admitted [to his actions] in the incident of Tamar." Tamar was about to be burned at the stake for her alleged act of adultery, when she gave Yehuda the chance to admit to his part in the events. He could easily have remained quiet, thereby sentencing three souls to death - Tamar and the twins inside her. However, in a defining moment in history, he bravely accepted accountability, saying, "she is right, it is from me." It is no coincidence that this was the key moment in producing the seed of the Messiah. We know that the Messiah is the person who will bring mankind back to its pristine state of before the sin, rectifying the mistake of Adam and Eve. The way in which to repair the damage done by a sin is by correcting the negative trait displayed in that sin. As we have seen, the main flaw present in Adam's sin was an inability to accept responsibility for mistakes, therefore Judah's success in taking responsibility for his actions was an ideal rectification.
The intrinsic connection between Messiah and taking responsibility continued strongly amongst Judah's most distinguished descendant, King David. The Talmud tells us that King Saul sinned once and subsequently lost his kingdom, whereas David sinned twice and remained king. Why was Saul treated so much more harshly than David? The Prophet, Samuel confronted Saul after he had not destroyed all of Amalek as he was commanded. But instead of admitting his mistake, Shaul justified his actions, denying he even sinned. Then he blamed it on the people for pressuring him to leave over some of Amalek's animals to be offerings. After a lengthy back and forth, Shaul finally did repent but it was too late and Shmuel informed him that he had lost his right to the kingship. In contrast, after David's sin in the incident of Batsheva, The Prophet, Nathan sternly rebuked him for his actions, and David immediately replied, "I have sinned to God." David showed his willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes by immediately admitting his guilt unlike Shaul. Therefore he was forgiven and given another chance to continue as King. Moreover, the kabbalistic sources write that King David is a reincarnation of Adam and that his purpose was to rectify Adam's sin. It seems very apparent that one of the main ways in which King David rectified the sin was by taking responsibility for his error so quickly.
We live in a society today that shuns the concept of responsibility - many educated people claim that no-one can be held liable for his behaviour. They argue that essentially we do not have any free will, the person that we become is predestined based on our background, upbringing, genetics and society. Consequently, criminals can be excused of their crimes on the basis that they really had no choice in the matter, and people can tolerate the failings in their relationships and character traits as being unavoidable. The Torah outlook strongly rejects this view. If a person is brave enough to admit that he can do better then God will surely help him do so.
We see this from the Talmud about a man called Elazar ben Durdaya. He was a man who was steeped in immorality; however he suddenly came to a realization of the error of his ways. The Talmud then proceeds to tell us how he tried to gain forgiveness for his sins. He sat between a mountain and a hill and asked them to request mercy for him but they refused. He then asked the heavens and earth to request mercy for him but they also refused. He finally turned to the sun and the moon but they also refused to help him.(1)
Rav Yissochor Frand brings a homiletical explanation of this Gemara. The different things whom he asked to pray for him represent different influences on his life; he was trying to shift responsibility for his behaviour onto them. The mountain and hill represent his parents. He argued that his upbringing was responsible for his dire situation, but they refused to acknowledge their guilt. He then turned to the heavens and earth who represent his environment and tried to blame that for his actions, but they also would not accept responsibility for his sins. He finally turned to the sun and the moon who represent his mazal, his natural inclinations, and claimed that it was impossible to avoid sinning because of his nature. But again, they would not accept culpability for his behaviour. Then the Gemara states that he said "this thing is only dependent on myself." He finally acknowledged that there was only one source responsible for his sins - himself. He could not blame his parents, society or nature, he realised that he had the power to change his ways and he did so. He then did complete teshuva and his soul returned to heaven and a Heavenly Voice came out, proclaiming that Rebbi Elazar ben Durdaya has a place in the Next World. The commentaries note that the Voice called him 'Rebbi' because he is our Rebbi in teshuva - he teaches us that the only way to do proper teshuva is to admit that the ultimate responsibility for our behaviour lies only with ourselves. If we can do this, then we can hope to do complete teshuva.
1. Obviously this Gemara should not be taken literally.