Elul – Taking Responsibility for Ourselves

As we enter the month of Elul, the concept of teshuva becomes foremost on people’s minds.  In Parshas Nitzavim, the Torah discusses the Mitzvo to do teshuva:  “This mitzvo that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’” What is the mitzvo that the Torah refers to in this passuk? The Ramban writes that it is the mitzvo of teshuva; the Torah is telling us that teshuva is not something that is out of our grasp, rather it is easily attainable if only we make the effort. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l asks, if the mitzvo of teshuva is so easy to fulfil, then why are there so few people who do teshuva properly, everyone knows that they make mistakes so why do they not admit their error and repent?!

The following Medrash about the story of Kayin and Hevel can help us answer this question: After Kayin killed Hevel, Hashem did not punish him instantly, rather He said “where is Hevel your brother?” Kayin famously answered, “am I my brother’s keeper?” (ibid. 4:9) The Medrash gives more details of Kayin‘s reply: “You are the protector of all life, and You are asking me?!.. I killed him but You gave me the evil inclination, You are supposed to protect everyone and You let me kill him, You are the one that killed him… had You accepted my offering like his, I would not have been jealous of him.” Why didn’t Kayin do teshuva for his heinous act? Because he refused to accept culpability for his role in the murder – he even blamed it on Hashem! We can now answer our initial question as to why so few people do teshuva properly. We are generally aware that we commit aveiros but there is one factor that prevents us from repenting properly, the ability to accept that the ultimate responsibility for our actions lies with us and us alone. There are many factors to which we can easily attribute our flaws; whether it be our upbringing, our natural inclinations, or our society, we find it extremely hard to accept ultimate responsibility for our failings. The prerequisite for teshuva is a recognition that ’I could have done better, I could have overcome my yetser hara and not sinned.’ Without the ability to make this difficult admission we can not begin to repent properly but with it teshuva is easily attainable.

This inability to admit our guilt lies at the core of the first and most decisive sin in human history which plagues us to this very day – that of Adam HaRishon. We traditionally attribute Adam’s sin to his disobeying Hashem’s instructions not to eat from the fruit, and it was this that caused Adam and Chava to be expelled from Gan Eden with all the accompanying negative consequences. Rav Motty Berger shlita points out that on closer analysis it is clear that they were not punished immediately after the sin. Rather, Hashem engaged Adam in conversation, giving him the opportunity to admit his mistake. However, Adam did not accept this reprieve, instead he said, “the woman whom You gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree and I ate.” Adam avoided responsibility for his sin, shifting it onto Chava and even Hashem himself for giving her to him initially. Then Hashem turned to Chava, also giving her a chance to repent – she too declined the offer, saying, “the serpent deceived me and I ate.” Only then did Hashem punish them for the sin. it is clear that had they taken responsibility for their actions when Hashem confronted them, then surely the punishment would have been far lighter. Who knows how different the course of history could have been!

We see from the stories of Adam and Kayin that the ability to admit one’s mistakes is perhaps even more important than not sinning! Indeed we all err at some point, it is whether we can stand up and admit the truth for our actions that is the true judge of our spiritual level. It was only several hundred years after the sad beginning of history that a man arose who would shoulder the responsibility for his actions and metaken the mistake of Adam HaRishon. The Tosefta says “why did Yehuda merit the Kingship? Because he admitted [to his actions] in the incident of Tamar.” Tamar was about to be burned at the stake for her alleged act of adultery, when she gave Yehuda the chance to admit to his part in the events. He could easily have remained quiet, thereby sentencing three souls to death – Tamar and the twins inside her. However, in a defining moment in history, he bravely accepted accountability, saying, “she is right, it is from me.” It is no co-incidence that this was the key moment in producing the seed of Moshiach. We know that Moshiach is the person who will bring mankind back to its pristine state of before the sin, rectifying the mistake of Adam and Chava. The way in which to repair the damage done by a sin is by correcting the negative midda displayed in that sin. As we have seen, the main flaw present in Adam’s sin was an inability to accept responsibility for mistakes, therefore Yehuda’s success in taking responsibility for his actions was an ideal rectification.

The intrinsic connection between Moshiach and taking responsibility continued strongly amongst Yehuda’s most distinguished descendant, David Hamelech. The Gemara tells us that Shaul sinned once and subsequently lost his kingdom, whereas David sinned twice and remained king. Why was Shaul treated so much more harshly than David? Shmuel confronted Shaul after he had not destroyed all of Amalek as he was commanded. But instead of admitting his mistake, Shaul justified his actions, denying he even sinned. Then he blamed it on the people for pressuring him to leave over some of Amalek’s animals to be offerings. After a lengthy back and forth, Shaul finally did repent but it was too late and Shmuel informed him that he had lost his right to the kingship. In contrast, after David’s sin in the incident of Batsheva, The prophet Natan sternly rebuked him for his actions, and David immediately replied, “I have sinned to Hashem.” David showed his willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes by immediately admitting his guilt unlike Shaul. Therefore he was forgiven and given another chance to continue as King. Moreover, the kabbalistic sources write that David Hamelech is a gilgul (reincarnation) of Adam HaRishon and that his purpose was to metaken Adam’s sin. It seems very apparent that one of the main ways in which David HaMelech was metaken the chet was by taking responsibility for his error so quickly.

We live in a society today that shuns the concept of responsibility – many educated people claim that no-one can be held liable for his behaviour. They argue that essentially we do not have any free will, the person that we become is predestined based on our background, upbringing, genetics and society. Consequently, criminals can be excused of their crimes on the basis that they really had no choice in the matter, and people can tolerate the failings in their relationships and middos as being unavoidable. The Torah outlook strongly rejects this view. If a person is brave enough to admit that he can do better then Hashem will surely help him do so.

We see this from the Gemara about a man called Elazar ben Durdaya. He was a man who was steeped in immorality, however, he suddenly came to a realisation of the error of his ways. The Gemara then proceeds to tell us how he tried to gain forgiveness for his sins. He sat between a mountain and a hill and asked them to request rachamim for him but they refused. He then asked the heavens and earth to request rachamim for him but they also refused. He finally turned to the sun and the moon but they also refused to help him.

Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita brings a drash explanation of this Gemara. The different things whom he asked to pray for him represent different influences on his life; he was trying to shift responsibility for his behaviour onto them. The mountain and hill represent his parents. He argued that his upbringing was responsible for his dire situation, but they refused to acknowledge their guilt. He then turned to the heavens and earth, who represent his environment and tried to blame that for his actions, but they also would not accept responsibility for his sins. He finally turned to the sun and the moon who represent his mazal, his natural inclinations, and claimed that it was impossible to avoid sinning because of his teva. But again, they would not accept culpability for his behaviour. Then the Gemara states that he said “this thing is only dependent on myself.” He finally acknowledged that there was only one source responsible for his aveiros – himself. He could not blame his parents, society or teva, he realised that he had the power to change his ways and he did so. He then did teshuva sheleima and his soul returned to heaven and a Bas Kol came out, proclaiming that Rebbi Elazar ben Durdaya has a place in Olam Haba. The commentaries note that the Bas Kol called him ‘Rebbi’ because he is our Rebbi in teshuva – he teaches us that the only way to do proper teshuva is to admit that the ultimate responsibility for our behaviour lies only with ourselves. If we can do this, then we can hope to do teshuva sheleima.

From the book “A Light in Time”



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