Of all the details we could have been taught from the first story about humanity, the one we receive ends up being about personal responsibility. The question echoes in our head each time we stray and hide from our Creator: “Where are you?” Stripped naked of our dignity and clothed with shame, we respond with fear and blame. We all make mistakes, in fact by putting a tree and a snake in the garden a “mistake” was bound to happen. But what is our response when we make a mistake, when we have a weak moment, when we miss the mark? The Torah begins this story surely to give us an example of what not to do. The repercussions were earth shattering. The two human beings are exiled out of paradise and cursed to live and experience life through the lens of pain and hard work.
As a rabbi, I often get the “what if” questions about this story. What if they hadn’t taken the forbidden fruit? What if they had admitted their wrong and apologized? My answer is that that story would have been too boring. The Eden story we have is the story of our lives. We often do not want to take responsibility for our actions. We want to shift the blame to someone else. We want to pretend that God is blind to these things and no one else is watching us.
The moral of this story is so important, as the narrative continues with Adam and Eve’s children. When Cain and Abel bring to God the fruits of their labor outside Eden, Abel’s is favored. Cain erupts in a rage of jealousy and slays his brother in the field. God asks another “where” question:
And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" And He said, "What have you done? Hark! Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the earth. And now, you are cursed even more than the ground, which opened its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand When you till the soil, it will not continue to give its strength to you; you shall be a wanderer and an exile in the land." – Bereishit 4:9-12
Here, the curse of Adam to toil over the field is magnified. Cain, the tiller of soil will never again receive fruit from the ground, no matter how much he works it. He is an exile of exile, doomed to wander the earth. Where is Cain? He is nowhere because he was not his brother’s keeper.
will history teach us nothing?
As we fast forward the story, to the time of Jacob’s family, we see that favoritism and brotherly hatred are still in full force. Joseph, the miracle child of Jacob and Rachel, enjoys a privileged status in the family and has the prideful attitude to match. Fed up with his dreams and his talk, his brothers plot to be rid of him. While the brothers are figuring out what to do with Joseph, he is abducted from the pit by some passerby tribes. Reuven finds the pit empty and says, “The boy is gone! And I – where can I go?” It seems like a universal reaction. When we realize our mistake, we often just want to hide. We hide behind our proverbial fig leaf, or behind apathy, or behind a lie. Now the brothers need to maintain the lie about Joseph’s fate to their father. Seeing Jacob’s perpetual state of mourning is the curse they have to live with daily.
The final chapter of this story ends with a strange interjection in the narrative. In Bereishit 38, the story of Joseph takes an intermission and we learn what Judah is up to after this series of unfortunate events. Judah moved away from the turmoil of his family and started his own. Due to their sins, both of Judah’s son’s die and his daughter-in-law is left as the widow of both. It seems that family anguish has followed Judah to his new home. Through all of this Judah has not lived up to his responsibility to provide Tamar, his daughter-in-law, with a kinsman redeemer to carry on her family line. After Judah’s wife dies, Tamar dresses as a harlot and entices Judah to consort with her along the route to Timnah.
When Tamar is found to be with child, Judah’s reaction was cold and abrupt, “Take her out and let her be burned!” But when she reveals the collateral that Judah had left with her (“do you recognize this cloak?”), his reaction shows a crucial shift in the Torah narrative.
Then Judah recognized, and he said, "She is more righteous than I, because I did not give her to my son Shelah." But he no longer continued to be intimate with her. – Bereishit 38:26
Here is a reaction that we do not see in the previous stories. He does not hide; he does not blame; he creates no lie. Judah realizes his mistake. He looks at his own cloak and remembers the mourning of his father, and perhaps the mistake of Cain, and of Adam and Eve. To take responsibility for our failings and truly repent when we do something wrong is the key to healing the relationships in our lives. Such a powerful force is repentance. Our Sages teach that the capacity for repentance was created alongside the free-will given to humanity. Judah was rewarded for this act of responsibility. Through his brief union with Tamar, the seed of Messiah was born. Taking responsibility for our actions, through repentance, is the true “light” of Messiah. When God asks “where are you?” and we choose not to hide but rather take responsibility, this is when the brilliant light of Messiah is shown. Shine brightly...