Learning to Take Responsibility
Our holy works discuss a duality of perception: God perceives reality as it truly is, while man perceives a veiled reality, in the way God wishes for him to perceive it. As one gets closer to Divine perception, man’s free will begins to evaporate.
According to Rav Yaakov Lainer of Ishbitz, this is the common theme throughout the opening stories of Genesis about people who denied culpability for their crimes. When Hashem accused Adam and Eve of committing a sin, each one denied that they were to blame; Adam said it wasn’t his fault, since the woman that God had provided for him had fed him the fruit. Eve said it wasn’t her fault, since the serpent had convinced her to do it. Early man, this brand new creation, perceived himself as a direct product of Hashem, and had a much closer view of reality as it appears to God, that man has no real autonomy. This is why Adam and Eve denied responsibility, because they didn’t yet perceive themselves as beings of free will, but rather as passive participants, puppets on a string, under God’s orchestration.
Denying responsibility from the start
There appears to be a progression in the stories of early man denying blame. We see three separate episodes of where man is accused of committing cardinal sins and denying responsibility. (1) The first is the sin in the Garden, (2) the second is Cain’s murder of Abel, and (3) the third is about a minor biblical figure, Lemekh, who also committed a form of homicide, as we’ll explain. I believe that these three stories provide us with a map of how man slowly learned to take responsibility for his actions and evolved to see himself as a free-willed being.
In the first story, Adam couldn’t fathom how he was to blame, if the very being that Hashem had provided for him was goading him to eat from the fruit. Hashem’s lesson to Adam was something that every child knows to be true: “If your wife told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?” Lesson #1 for early man is that no one in your life other than yourself can compel you to do something that you know to be wrong.
In the second story, Cain claimed to be blameless because he committed an act of passion. When he said (4:9), “לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי:” – “I did not know that I was my brother’s keeper,” he did so sincerely. How can I be held responsible for my feelings of anger and jealously? You, God, created me with these emotions that impelled me to kill my brother; why should I be to blame? Lesson #2 for early man is that no matter how impassioned you feel by your emotions, no matter how tumultuous your state of mind, you may not impinge on someone else’s wellbeing. You are ultimately in control, no matter how upset you become.
The third story is much more subtle. Firstly, the Torah never indicates what Lemekh’s crime was. All we know from the text is that his two wives, Adah and Tzilah, were not happy with him, and that he had to argue in his own defense that he wasn’t to blame for having killed a person (4:19-24). Secondly, we never find, as we do with Adam and Cain, that God reproached him for his behavior.
Lemech different perspective
I’m fascinated by the approach of the Ramban, who maintains that Lemekh killed no one. Rather, Lemekh was a very wise and inventive person, and, as the text explains, he taught each of his three sons a different skill. He taught his first son, Yaval, the skill of migrant grazing of livestock. He taught his second son, Yuval, the art of music. He taught his third son, Tuval-Cain, the science of metallurgy, which included not only the manufacture of useful farming tools, but also the manufacture of weapons. Lemekh’s wives were upset with him because through his introduction of weapon-making, he was bringing great death and destruction to the world through warfare that would inevitably ensue.
Lemekh responded to his wives that he was not to blame for any bloodshed that would be caused by his weapons. He had killed no one, but was only providing tools of violence to others. He reasoned: Look at Cain, who was able to kill his brother without weapons. Surely Cain was guilty, but how could teaching one’s son how to manufacture weapons be compared to Cain’s act of murder?
The truth is, Lemekh’s argument continues to be debated in modern society. As the saying goes among gun enthusiasts, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” When used responsibly, guns can even deter violence. Perhaps this is the very reason why the Torah leaves this story open-ended and unresolved. God doesn’t take an open position in the debate between Lemekh and his wives, nor do we note that Lemekh suffered any consequences for his actions.
Weapons and liability
But one thing is clear: the great violence that began to brew within early human society, as recorded at the end of our parsha and the beginning of Parshas Noach, could not have reached such a crescendo without the introduction of weapons that allowed people to kill each other with much greater efficiency.
The fact that the Torah records the story indicates that there is some level of liability placed on the weapons maker or dealer. Granted, the gun-maker didn’t pull the trigger, but when society as a whole proliferates weapons widely and idealizes their use, mankind is doomed to go through iterations of violence. The individual should learn from this story that one would be much better off becoming a shepherd or musician than an arms manufacturer.
This story is part of the progression in human beings learning to take responsibility for their behavior: First (Adam), man learns that he has autonomy and that no other being can compel someone to do something wrong. Second (Cain), man learns that he must control his impulses and cannot excuse his bad behavior because of his passions. Finally (Lemekh), man learns that although he may not bear personal responsibility for introducing harmful substances to his fellow man, there is some level of communal duty to try and foster a culture of peace and wellbeing for society.
Identify evil, choose good
If it took time for early man to learn how to take responsibility for his behavior, it would appear that today, mankind is regressing, not because we are so close to Hashem’s reality, but rather because we have grown even more distant from the great moral lessons of the Torah. Today, we blame poor choices on sundry inborn and environmental factors; we are told that we cannot pass judgment on anyone. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history. Bloodshed and violence continue around the world even in our advanced 21st century. Society is not yet ready to completely eliminate the tools of warfare from our midst, nor is it prepared to pass judgment on the violent perpetrators.
And now, we are at war, the bloodiest war that Israel has faced in decades. We are already seeing the malevolent voices condemning Israel and blaming the victims. “We can’t blame Hamas, they’re desperate and we have to allow each culture to express its frustration in the only way it knows how, even if it involves savagely victimizing innocent men, women and children.” “We can’t blame Iran; they only provided the means for Hamas to perpetrate its terror. Like Lemech, they did not pull the trigger.” The small steps begin with each and every one of us. Each of us has a voice with which to protest a social order that offers cover to terrorists.
While free will may be an illusion from God’s standpoint, it is quite real in this artificial construct we call life, and it is the cornerstone of every precept that was given to us by God in the Torah. It is why the Torah teaches us about free will so early on in the Torah. Hashem wants us to live within this construct of free will and exercise control over our lives, our emotions, and the actions we perform. He wants us to identify good and evil and choose the good and reject and eliminate the evil. May we choose wisely so that this is the year when war finally comes to an end and we usher in the Redemption, bb”a.