The World’s Oldest Excuse

In Parshat Bereishit, (Genisis) we encounter something that lies at the root of the human condition. It is  a recurring motif in the narrative and, indeed, throughout the TaNa”Ch (Torah Nevi’im Chesuvim = The Bible (I refer only to what is called the “Old” Testament, not the newfangled one)) we find many instances where this resurfaces.

What I refer to is how we, as human beings, relate to our mistakes. For we all make them. In fact, according to many of our mefarshim (those who give explanations), we were made to make them as well.

The first instance of this is found in Genesis (3:13) when Adam, after having been caught red-handed having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, gives us the world’s oldest excuse. “It’s my wife’s fault”, he said. Let’s put this in perspective. She really did give it to him. Not only that but according to the interpretation brought by the Ba’al HaTurim on that verse not only did she give it to him, she literally “gave it to him” by hitting him with a tree so that he would eat it! But that’s not all! Not only did Adam blame his wife, in the same sentence, if we pay very close attention to the wording, we find that he says to HKB”H as well “It’s also Your fault”. “The woman that You have given unto me”, says Adam. “It can’t be my fault,” says man “it’s because of everyone else”. This is the first instance of the “blame game” in recorded history and it remains, literally, the oldest excuse in the world.

But there are many more instances of the blame game in the Torah.

Later on, in Parshat Vayerah (21:28-) that Avimelech, when confronted with the theft of Avraham’s wells by his people, blames everyone but himself. “I don’t know who did it. You never told me (=It’s your fault). I only heard about it today (can’t be my fault)”[1]. There are a great many examples of this happening but I’ll address three more.

Another famous example is that of Shaul haMelech (King Saul) who, after having been commanded by G-d through his prophet Samuel to eradicate the people and the property of the people of Amalek went ahead … and didn’t follow through. He kept the king, Agag, alive and kept the choicest of the cattle and the sheep for sacrifices. (See Samuel 1 15:24) When confronted by the prophet, Samuel, as to why he, Saul, didn’t carry out HKB”H’s command fully he starts giving a logical and philosophical explanation as to why he did it and finally ends up by saying “It’s the people’s fault. I listened to them”.

What is the result of this attitude? What is the outcome of laying the blame on someone else when it comes to my doing something wrong? Indeed, how is this topic relevant to emunah that I am bringing it up in my emunah blog?

First – a word from our “sponsor” of this week’s blog post – Yehuda and King David.

Yes, indeed, these great individuals, like all human beings also did acts of dubious nature. Yet it is their reaction having being confronted with their shortcomings that are so important.

Yehuda had a daughter-in-law who was, ostensibly, waiting for Yehuda’s third son, Shelah, to come of age so that she could marry him, thereby fulfilling the commandment of a levirate marriage (called Yibum in the Torah). The Torah tells us how, upon seeing that this was not going to happen she went and, under auspicious circumstances became pregnant from Yehuda himself. She then told no one about what had happened. After a few months, however, it was clear to everyone that something went on as she was showing. Yehuda was called upon to judge the case of the apparent illicit relations of his daughter-in-law, who was the daughter of the only Cohen in existence at the time, Abimelech King/Priest of Shalem, and Yehuda rules that she should be put to death by fire. Tamar, (the defendant), sent certain items of Yehuda that she had in her possession to him with the message “I am pregnant from the guy to whom these items belong”. She didn’t say outright “Yehuda, you idiot! You’re the poppa!”, from which our sages, ob”m, in tractate Ketubot learn that it is preferable to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than to publicly embarrass someone. But he knew what she meant, and he owned up to it. “She’s right! It’s from me”, said Yehuda. It was this act of recognition, not just the comprehension of his moral failure, but the owning up to it, that was the reason that he was deserving of gadlus (greatness).

He also taught it to his descendants.

King David (=K”D, from here on) (Samuel II 11) also is brought to task for what happened between him and Bat Sheva. The prophet Natan (ibid. 12) visits the king and asks him to make a ruling regarding the case (a parable) of the rich man who was the neighbor of a poor man whose only possession in the whole world was one little schepselach (Yiddish for “sheep”). He describes to the King just how prized and important the sheep was to the poor man. He then tells of how the rich man took the sheep and slaughtered it to feed some guests that came over. Natan then asked the King to make a ruling as to what the punishment of the rich man should be, and K”D, in his anger with the rich man, rules severely. At which point the prophet turns to K”D and tells him “You! You are the rich man!” at which point K”D falls to the ground off of his throne and says “I have sinned” (chatatti, in Hebrew). “I did the the wrong thing. I recognize that. I own up to it”. At this point, the prophet tells him that his sin is no more, that HKB”H has forgiven him.

That is the greatness of man.

However, what is the difference between these two types of people? There are a few.

The first difference is whether I am willing to recognize my shortcomings so that I can grow from my mistakes and my experiences. But there is a much deeper, emmuna based issue as well.

Nothing happens for no reason. All things that occur “under the sun” happen for a reason, none of it, and I truly mean none of it, not the immensely great nor the infinitesimally small happen for no reason. Everything in this world is controlled by The Director. In truth, our mistakes and our shortcomings are not happenstance. In fact, some of them occur based on events that are beyond our control. For example, our sages, ob”m, tell us that based on who he was and who he had built himself into Yehuda should have never “sinned” with Tamar in the first place. To go to some “vagrant woman” on the wayside was not an act that should have appealed to him, nor should he have been enticed by it being the man of great stature and spirit that he was. None-the-less he still did it. Despite the fact that it was beyond his control there could be no doubt that he was the one who did the act. Adam, also, was forced into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but at the end of the day he did, in fact, eat the fruit. The proper response should have been. “You are right, HKB”H. I have sinned” this admission would have atoned for his misdeed, and like we found by K”D he would have been informed, “Your sin has been erased”.

Mistakes and mishaps are so much a part of life and learning that our sages, ob”m, tell us (Tractate Gittin 41b)ein adam omed al divrei Torah ad she’nechshal bahem” (a person cannot truly understand the words of the Torah until he has failed at keeping them). We were made to fail sometimes, but it’s our failures that make us grow to our full potential. But that only works if I allow myself to take a good look at myself in the mirror, or if I open up my ears to the possibility that I still have room to grow and the possibility that I might be lacking in perfection. If I cannot own up to my shortcomings, if I cannot realize that the fault is mine for having done the act, said the words, or in any way having acted in a manner not befitting a person of my stature, (and yes, all Jews are people of stature and are therefore held to a different standard), then I miss out on the whole point.

To quote one of my Rabbeim of yesteryear, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, there were two American presidents in recent history that in some way represent the polar opposites of this issue. There was Ronald Regan and there was Bill Clinton. In 1983 after a terror attack on the American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon then President Ronald Regan, who was in no way directly connected to the attack, went on public television and apologized to the American people saying “I’m the Commander in Chief of the USA. It’s my fault that this could have occurred. I take full responsibility”. Whereas Bill Clinton, after having taken an oath concerning his scandal with Monica Lewinsky, subsequently lied about it and was caught in his lie. When he was asked how he could do that he ostensibly answered: “If you didn’t want me to lie – you shouldn’t have asked the question”. Meaning “I’m not at fault for lying. It’s your fault, you asked the question and made me do it”.

The answer to any such occurrence, says the Torah is to own up to our shortcomings. “I had a human shortcoming” is not a disaster of biblical proportionsit-s-not-my-fault-but-it-is-my-problem, it is the polar opposite. It is the preparation of the human condition to grow. It says about me “I recognize that I still have what to do in life” instead of lazily treading, or wallowing in our lowly base form, looking to lay the blame for my shortcomings on everyone and everything possible.

From our Emmuna viewpoint, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances were that caused me to do the act or the sin, it was meant to happen one way or another. It happened not so that I should lay the blame, but rather so that I should take it and prepare myself for transcendence.

[1] Even though, superficially, these would appear to be good excuses, we must pay close attention to every detail that the Torah gives in all things. If we note the order in which Avimelech answered Avraham’s claim of theft we find that he first says “I don’t know who did it” and only later “This is the first I have heard of it”. If he really didn’t know about it the first thing he would have said would be exactly that “It’s news to me”. You don’t open up with “I don’t know who did it” first if you don’t know about it at all.

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