By Rabbi Alex Freedman
Genesis begins with brimming promise and potential – people are endowed with the Divine image! And then humanity immediately devolves into chaos and wickedness. How did people fall so fast?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Z”L writes a wonderful essay zooming in on people taking responsibility. Or, more correctly, not taking responsibility.
First are Adam and Eve, who not only eat of the forbidden fruit, but then claim it’s not their fault. Adam blames Eve (and G-d) while Eve blames the snake. Neither takes personal responsibility for their actions. Neither says, “I messed up, and it’s my fault.”
Next we meet their sons Cain and Abel. Burning with jealousy, the older brother Cain murders his younger brother. When G-d confronts him about his deed, Cain famously replies: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By doing so, Cain fails the test of moral responsibility. Of course we are responsible for those close to us! Cain does not deny his action or blame somebody else, but he wonders why he should care about anyone beside himself.
Later we meet Noah, who diligently builds the ark that G-d instructs to survive the flood. If you look carefully, you will see that Noah never says a word throughout the story. While Noah is righteous and obeys G-d, he never speaks up on behalf of humanity or asks G-d to spare them from destruction. Noah does not understand collective responsibility.
Each of these generations fails a different test of responsibility. Interestingly, it is Abraham who later succeeds them and passes each test. He meets the test of personal responsibility when he says “Hinneni, here I am,” and carries out the binding of Isaac himself. He meets the test of moral responsibility when he welcomes three strangers into his tent and graciously offers them wonderful hospitality. And he meets the test of collective responsibility when he speaks up on behalf of the wicked residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, asking G-d to save them for the sake of the innocent.
We Jews are descendants of Abraham, the first Jew. As we reread these stories of the birth of humanity, let us recall that these tests of responsibility await us in each of our own lives as well.