Bereishit: The Beginning of Guilt?

“Jewish guilt” is such a common trait that it’s a well-used (too well-used) cliché in American comedy. Woody Allen created his entire career with variations on this theme. It’s so endemic you’d think it was actually grounded in our belief system, the Torah. And if you indeed read the Torah, or more properly the Bible, since you’ll be applying a non-Jewish interpretation to the verses, you just might make that mistake.

As we all know, almost immediately after being created, first Chava (Eve) and then her husband, Adam, violate the only commandment they’ve been given by eating the fruit of the עץ הדעת טוב ורע (Etz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra) the Tree of Knowledge Good and Evil. They suddenly become self-aware of their nakedness, covering themselves with the proverbial fig leaves. When God come calling, they hide from Him. He then calls out to them אַיֶּכָּה (Ayeka), “Where are you?”

I’ll let the words (my loose translation) of Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l, whose yahrzeit we just observed on Simchat Torah (in the galut, Isru Chag in Eretz Yisrael) take over…

“The principle is that, given that Man transgressed (by eating the fruit), all God wants is for him to do tshuva, to learn from his mistake and to not repeat it in the future. But the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) seduces Man to either drown himself in self-condemnation and guilt or to blame someone else. It’s extremely difficult to accept responsibility for one’s (evil) actions without indulging in self-condemnation and guilt.

So, when God asks Adam, ‘Ayeka?’, He’s really asking him, ‘Where are you spiritually?’ Adam replies, ‘I saw that I was naked and I hid’, meaning that he labeled himself irredeemably evil, (i.e. unfit for God’s presence). When God continues to ask him, ‘Did you eat from the tree from which I told you not to eat?’, He’s not asking Adam if he’s an evil person and naked (bereft of all merit and worth), He’s just asking him whether or not he committed this deed. In other words, God is inviting Adam to take responsibility for his action. When Adam replies to this blaming his wife, it’s clear that he is unable/unwilling to to do so, rather shirking the responsibility onto his wife” (1)

Everyone not merely errs, falls short or other euphemisms, we, each and every one of us, from time to time in our lives, do absolutely horrible things. Since we can’t move time-travel in reverse, none of us are able to undo the damage we’ve caused. Just like Adam, we have three choices. We can accept our responsibility and learn, move forward, try to repair the damage or, at the very least, not compound it. We can also, on the other hand, fall into self-pitying depression, evading any positive effects we might now have in front of us. Or, of course, we can just blame someone else.

All too often, through the ages, we accepted our own guilt (even when we did nothing wrong) to such a degree that we’ve developed an appetite for it–we’ve become connoisseurs of guilt. Of course, the dominant cultures we’ve lived among have always been happy to feed that appetite, scapegoating and blaming us for all sorts of ills with famous and infamous blood libels through the ages. Powerless for millennia, as a people we’ve become so conditioned being assigned and then accepting blame that, for (too) many of us, it has become second nature.

Nowhere has this pathology become more common than in certain segments of our people accepting, without question or protest, let alone justification, blame for all the violence and savagery that consumes today’s middle east. “If only we’d stop oppressing those poor Palestinians and give them our heartland as their own (judenrein) nation, there would be world peace…..” is nothing but the pathetic cry of our collective neurosis, gone out of control. If anything at all is wrong in the world, we jump to claim the blame. What we won’t do, of course, is accept the responsibility of a sovereign people to guarantee our own safety and survival, because we’re so guilt-laden that we see ourselves as ערום (arum), “naked”, without worth or merit or even the right to live in peace in our own land.

Ayeka? We are we, really? Are we ready to accept reality and move forward or are we unwilling to budge from our self-imposed, totally inappropriate and unjust, prison of guilt?

(1)  מלבות שלמה פר‛ בראשית Malchut Shlomo, parshat Bereishit, Rabbi BCSM Twerski zt”l 5766

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