A man was once accused of a serious crime. The evidence was so incriminating that a guilty verdict seemed inevitable. In desperation, the defendant hired a prominent attorney. “Your only hope,” advised the lawyer “is to enter a plea of insanity. You will need to act crazy in court.
At the trial, the man followed his counsel’s advice and began making strange noises; jumping up and down and waving his hands. He performed so well that the case was soon dismissed.
To his utter dismay, when the lawyer approached his client to collect his fee, the man resumed his ridiculous stunt; making strange motions and sounds. His expert advice had come back to haunt him – he had become the butt of his own clever ploy.
Have you ever met a person whose life is a complete shambles, musing over how it all got that way? “Where have I gone wrong?” is a mantra familiar to every Rabbi and I suspect psychiatrist as well.
This painful lament is often sounded by people who take no responsibility for the mess in their lives. They can find no connection between anything they have (or have not) done and the undesirable circumstances in which they find themselves.
They have no idea how their kids turned out the way they have, the financial situation got so out of whack and their marriage so deteriorated, not to mention the overweight issue, employment woes, wrecked friendships, and so forth.
When to take responsibility for events in our life and when to cling to the “Bashert” doctrine (trust that G-d is in full control and fully liable) is not that simple and may be easily confused.
To be sure, there are enough events in our lives which are beyond our control, both of the good variety and the not so good variety, as goes the popular (recently cleaned-up) adage: “Salt happens.” We cannot blame ourselves for every misfortune. But, are we always absolved? We need only look in this week’s Torah reading for an answer.
Our Parsha begins with a series of seemingly unrelated laws. First there is the law concerning a soldier who comes upon a beautiful woman whom he wishes to marry. Then, about a man who has two wives – one loved the other hated. He must, says the Torah, allot a double portion of his inheritance to the firstborn son, even if he is the child of the despised wife.
The third law of our Sedrah concerns a rebellious and gluttonous son who won’t listen to his parents. So delinquent is this child, he poses a threat to society. It is only a matter of time, maintain the sages, before he will begin to rob and kill innocent people.
According to Rashi, there is as much wisdom in the sequence of these laws as there is in the laws themselves. Woven into these three scenarios and their careful juxtaposition is a remarkable tale of progressive deterioration.
The story begins with a classic case of infatuation and lust – a soldier who sets eyes on a foreign woman with whom he shares no common ground; neither by way of culture, nor religion. Their involvement is visibly not in the best interest of either – she is clearly not his “Basherta.” Still he cannot resist his libido.
This impetuous relationship sets the stage for the second scenario; hate! In fact, according to Rashi, the woman for whom our soldier was so lustful is the very subject of the second case – she has now become his loathed and rejected spouse. Surprised? You ought not to be. Is there really a more plausible end to a union founded on lust and selfishness? But wait, the plot thickens.
The hateful relationship of husband and wife quickly spills over into the lives of the rest of the family. Not only has the love and respect for his wife dissolved into vapor, his hatred has spread to the children as well. This is evident by the fact that he wishes not to allot his oldest son his deserved inheritance.
Now stop and think, when parents portray a model of insolence and hate, what can be expected of their kids? So, the environment progressively deteriorates from one in which parents hate each other and their children, to one in which children hate their parents and each other – a bone-a-fide dysfunctional family.
Calamity leads to calamity, and before you know it, the unloved son of the unloved mother becomes bitter, defiant and in the end, psychologically challenged and hopelessly delinquent.
In the sequence of these three laws, says Rashi, the Torah seeks to convey a highly poignant message: Criminal delinquency is (generally) not created in a vacuum!
Much as we prefer to avoid taking any credit for this shameful failure, it is by no means an orphan; it is the direct making of our own doing – the results of earlier reckless decisions and actions.
When this poor father comes knocking on the Rabbi’s door searching for an answer as to “How it has come to this? Where have I gone wrong?” The sobering answer says the Torah, is that it began when you let your heart rule your mind and married a woman out of lust. From there on it was all downhill.
No, our actions are not a series of isolated events. More realistically, they are equivalent to the sequential moves in a game of chess, the ramifications of which affect the entire make up of the board and ultimately the outcome of the game. Indeed our every action, forever impacts our lives and humanity as a whole.
This truism is the subject of Pirke Avot 2:6: “He [Hillel] also saw a skull floating on top of the water; he said to it: Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and in the end those who drowned you will be themselves drowned.”
In another Mishnah in Pirkei Avot the sage, Ben Azzai, similarly states: “Run to perform even an easy mitzvah, and flee from transgression; for one mitzvah brings about another, and one transgression brings about another.”
In "Judgment at Nuremberg," American judge Dan Haywood sentences Ernst Janning, an important legal figure in Germany even before the rise of Hitler, to life in prison for condemning an innocent Jewish doctor to death in 1935. Janing pleads to Haywood that he was unaware of the magnitude of the Nazi horror and that he would have never assisted Hitler had he known what the monster was scheming.
"Those people, those millions of people," Janing begged for his freedom, "I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it." To which Judge Haywood replied: "It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."
The long and short of it is that there exists a behavioral eco system of sorts. Every member of society can affect the balance of this delicate system by what he or she emits into the atmosphere by way of human expression. The ripple effect of our every action is truly remarkable – it has a resounding impact on either “sensitizing” or “desensitizing” humanity.
Still, you may argue that this notion is viable only with regards to tangible good and evil – behavior that translates into actual benefit or detriment. What harm, you say, is there in conduct that causes no perceptible damage to anyone, like for example immorality “between two consenting adults?” I offer the following thought for consideration.
A healthy society, we can all agree, is comprised of healthy individuals. Healthy individuals, by definition, possess a good measure of self-discipline and self-control. A deficiency of self-control makes for people who are weak and lacking in moral and ethical capacity, especially in face of challenge. Such individuals are exceedingly vulnerable to temptation.
Each time a person succumbs to temptation he becomes further desensitized and loses thereby a little more of his self-control and ability to withstand challenge.
While in the beginning his temptations may seem benign and harmless, as he continues to succumb he becomes increasingly weaker and less fit to overcome his next bout with his animal inclination. Eventually he will be so weakened and desensitized he will no longer possess the stamina to resist any temptation.
Much as with our good soldier, pandering to our animal instincts will only set into motion a vicious cycle of deterioration and decline – leaving destruction and anguish in its wake.
Having been formed in the image of G-d, man is unique among the expansive mixture of G-d’s creation. Man alone possesses the capacity for responsibility and discipline. Human conscience and intelligence bestow man with the ability for undiminished self-control and behavioral responsibility.
This notion is in stark contrast to the mind-set of much of secular society. Our legal system, for example, has become replete with the most absurd rationalizations in defense of inexplicable conduct. New lows have been set in our society’s standards of human accountability.
But to disavow man’s intrinsic capacity for complete behavioral responsibility is to actually degrade him. It is to effectively strip him from his unique human qualities.
Most of all however, it is to ignore the reverberating ramifications – the destructive cycle that is set into motion with each irresponsible act and misdeed.
Let us take the lesson of this week’s Parsha regarding the true potential and capacity of man’s every act. Let us set into motion a cycle of righteousness and light – one Mitzvah at a time, hastening thereby the final redemption with the coming of the righteous Moshiach.