It's so very difficult - almost impossible - for us to focus on anything but Israel but I'd like to share some thoughts with you about yesterday's Torah portion and try to relate it in some way to our beloved homeland.
It all started in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Even before Gd commanded Adam about what he could – and could not - eat in the garden, Gd placed him there to work it and to protect it – l’avda ul’shamra. We understand what it means that Gd placed Adam in the garden. And we can understand that Gd charged him with working in the garden. But what does shamra – to protect it, mean? Protect it from whom? There was no one else around!
Rabbi Yossie Levine, of the Jewish Center in New York City, says that l’shamra, in addition to its meaning of protecting something, also means to accept responsibility. In his read, לשמרה - l’shamra - is the overarching ethic within which our commandments and their restrictions apply. Gd instructs Adam, the way he does, to make sure that nothing goes wrong on his watch. We know that it didn’t exactly work out that way. Enter Eve who proceeds to be enticed by the serpent to eat from that forbidden tree. As we know, instead of admitting guilt, she blames the serpent. And then Adam follows suit.
The responsibility of preserving the integrity of the heretofore pristine garden rested solely on Adam’s shoulders. It is he who was instructed by Gd with the words l’avda ul’shamra. And yet he is totally unable to step up and to recognize his failing. Both Adam and Eve deny personal responsibility for their actions. They say, in effect, “it wasn’t me”.
The pattern of not taking responsibility continues. We observe the inability, or the unwillingness, to take responsibility spilling over into the next generation. The first instance of sibling rivalry unfolds, leading tragically to the first murder:
As it is written in Genesis 4, verses 8-10: “While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. When the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ what followed was Cain’s no-responsibility response, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
Cain doesn’t deny personal responsibility as his parents did. He doesn’t say, “It wasn’t me,” or “It wasn’t my fault.” But he does deny moral responsibility. In effect, he asks why he should be concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself. If there is no morality in nature, then we are responsible only for ourselves. That is the voice of Cain throughout the ages.
In essence, Cain fails to avoid the mistakes of his parents. When Adam sins, God asks, איכה – Ayeka - Where are you? – in the hope that this will provide Adam an opening to explain his guilt. When Cain sins, Gd asks the same question. Gd casts no blame and He points no fingers. Instead, He begins with a question. He opens the door to a conversation, giving the guilty party the opportunity to accept responsibility for what he has done wrong. In neither of these Biblical accounts does that happen, however.
These two stories are not just stories. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks views them as an account, at the beginning of the Torah’s narrative history of humankind, of a “failure, first personal then moral, to take responsibility”.
Carrying on with the theme of responsibility, we find a fascinating phrase in the account of Moses’ early years. As we’ve learned, Moses grows up, he goes out to his people, the Israelites, and he sees them suffering from the horrible slave labor to which they were subjected. He further witnesses an Egyptian officer beating an Israelite. The text then says: “He looked this way and that and saw no one” - vayar ki ein ish (Ex. 2:12), or more literally, ‘he saw that there was no man’.
It is difficult to understand this literally. One would think that there must have been many people present. One commentator seems to nail it – he says that the phrase means, “he looked this way and that and saw that there was no one else - - no one willing to intervene, that is.”
It took a Moses to act which is what made him a role model for responsible behavior. Responsibility appears when we are active, not passive, when we do not wait for someone else to act because perhaps there is no one else – at least not there/not here, not then/not now.
When bad things happen, some look the other way. Some wait for others to act. Some blame others for failing to act. Some just complain. But there are some people who say, “If something is wrong let me try to make it right.” Like Moses, they are the role models of responsibility. They are the ones who make a difference in their, and in our, lifetimes. They are the ones who make our world a better place. They are our shomrim – from l’shamra, the word we learned about with Adam. They are the ones who take responsibility.
The horrific Hamas attack on Israel has clearly heightened our awareness – indelibly - of being responsible for each other.
Let’s not forget that when Adam and Eve behaved the way they did, Gd called out, Ayeka - “Where are you?” As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi pointed out, this call was not directed only to the first human beings. It echoes in every generation, including our own. Gd gave us freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. Gd teaches us what we ought to do but He does not do it for us. He acts through us, not to us. His is the voice that tells us, as He told Cain, that we can do the right thing in the face of the evil that surrounds us.
In closing, the Hebrew word for responsibility is achrayut, which comes from the word acher, meaning “other.” Our great Other is Gd Himself, calling us to use the freedom He gave us, to make the world that is - more like the world that ought to be. The great question, the question that the life we lead answers, is: which voice will we listen to? Will we heed the voice of desire, as did Adam and Eve? Will we listen to the voice of anger, as Cain did? Or will we follow the voice of Gd, calling on us to make our world a just and responsible world?
Let us remember that a responsible life is a life that responds.
With prayers for the return of our hostages and we pray for comfort, for healing, for strength and for safety in this terrible time for our beloved homeland, Israel. Amen.
Rabbi Marge Wise
Please stay tuned for additional Wise Words!