One of my favorite days as a high school teacher was the one on which I asked my 9th graders who was to blame for the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Their answers filled the board in a complicated array of overlapping arguments, stretching even my extensive collection of colored dry-erase markers as I tried to assign a different color to each opinion.
The story of that sin is often held up as a paradigm of the human tendency to avoid responsibility. “Adam, what did you do?” “Uh, it’s her fault, G-d!” “Eve, what did you do?” “The snake made me do it!” We condemn them both for not owning up to their misdeeds. Could punishment have been averted by a little heartfelt hakarat hachet, acknowledgment of sin, and a cleansing teshuva process?
But I always thought that was a little unfair. As my students collectively noticed, blame in the Garden of Eden was complicated – and so was the passing of blame.
Look at what Adam actually says. “The woman that you gave [to be] with me – she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12).
Rashi (based on the Gemara in Avodah Zarah 5b) famously calls Adam a “denier of good” for this defense of his: instead of accepting responsibility, he faults the woman who was created to join him in pursuit of goodness, and by extension, he faults the One Who created her. Seforno takes this point a step further, pointing out what we said above: “With this, [Adam] attached his guilt to his Creator – instead of the teshuva that would have been appropriate for him, like David did when he said to Natan, ‘I sinned.’”
But – doesn’t Adam also say “and I ate”? He could easily have stopped after blaming G-d and Eve, but he didn’t. “And I ate.” I always picture him starting his sentence kind of eagerly, like my kids when trying to get out of blame for some infraction – running up, exclaiming, gesturing, “But, but, it was… she… he…” – and then, as the blame-passing peters out, the excitement fades, the head hangs, the voice gets lower in contrition – “and I ate.” Right there – isn’t that a case of taking responsibility, acknowledging his own misdeed? The Netziv suggests it is, though his comment is itself worded somewhat ambiguously:
ואכל. הוא כמו ודוי כאומר הה חטאתי שאכלתי. וכמו שאמר שאול חטאתי כי עברתי וגו׳ כי יראתי את העם הרי עירב התנצלות והודוי ביחד. כך התנצל אדם שלא אכל בשאט נפש חלילה אבל מ״מ הרי חטאתי ואכל. וכן הפי׳ במאמר האשה הנחש השיאני ואוכל:
“And I ate” – This is like vidui (confession), like one who says “Oh, I sinned, for I ate!” And like Shaul said, “I sinned…because I was afraid of the people” – Behold, he mixed excuses and confession together. Thus Adam excused himself, that he didn’t eat out of contempt, G-d forbid, but nevertheless, “I sinned and I ate.” And thus is the explanation of the woman’s statement, “The snake convinced me, and I ate.”
Seforno pointed out that Adam could have been like David, confessing without excuse – but instead, as the Netziv explains, he was more like Shaul. I once sat next to an Israeli man on a bus in Manhattan, who saw me with a Tanach and took the opportunity to challenge me, in Hebrew, with his burning biblical question: Wasn’t Shaul better than David? Why did he lose his kingdom, and why did David get to replace him? Look at all the terrible things David did! My answer was this very distinction: Shaul acknowledged his sin, but in the same breath as trying to justify himself (I Samuel 15:24); David took the blame absolutely (II Samuel 12:13), without appeal to mitigating factors, and so his was the greater teshuva. Adam, like Shaul, may have admitted his sin – but his admission was tainted by his attempt to pass off some of the blame. He offered something “like confession,” instead of pure unadulterated “confession.”
And as the Netziv notes at the end of his comment – Eve did the same in the next pasuk, eagerly explaining herself: “The snake convinced me – and” [she hangs her head a little, lowers her voice in shame]… “and I ate.”
This all makes for a beautiful lesson on teshuva and taking complete responsibility for our actions – but I’m still not satisfied.
I think the reason I’m not satisfied is that they were all right. Whatever I may have told the man on the bus – Shaul didn’t lie, he didn’t claim his dog ate his sword and that’s why he didn’t complete the assignment of killing Amalek; he simply explained his thinking. (Strikingly in his case, he really thought he had fulfilled his assignment.) Adam and Eve, too – G-d asked what happened, and they each told Him exactly what happened and why.
The reason I’m not satisfied is that, as long as an excuse is an actual reason rather than a lie, I can understand bringing it in as a factor. What’s wrong with bringing up mitigating circumstances, if the circumstances were in fact mitigated? “I shouldn’t have done it, but let me explain why I did.” Or, if the sequence and the word “but” seem to skew things too much – “Let me explain why I did… but I shouldn’t have done it anyway.” Which is actually more accurate to what Adam and Eve both said: they didn’t admit their guilt and then take it back with a “but”; they each offered the circumstances and concluded with admission of guilt.
Yet, Shaul lost his kingdom, and Adam and Eve lost Paradise.
It occurs to me that maybe the answer is that there is a time and place for everything – and sometimes, it’s just not the time or the place.
True, Eve was put in a challenging position by the snake’s arguments and the temptation he offered, and perhaps she and G-d could have had a long heart-to-heart about it afterwards, talking through all the background to her misdeed and even how to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. But in the moment, right after the deed was done, was not the time to excuse herself. It was the time to only say “I ate.” I did it. Me. I was wrong.
True, Adam was put in a challenging position when the woman who was supposed to be his “helpmeet” offered him a fruit. Some commentaries even suggest he didn’t know what the fruit was, and innocently trusted what she gave him – another bit of justification possibly alluded to in his statement. But the only thing that mattered in that moment was “I ate.” Explanations and analysis of the factors which led up to his eating could have, and should have, come later.
True, Shaul felt overwhelmed and uncertain about how to handle the details of his assignment in the face of “the people’s” arguments and perhaps his own sympathies. But he was the king, and even if we can understand the factors that led to his moment of weakness, the bottom line was that he was the king and he did not do what the king needed to do. That admission needed its own moment, pure and unadulterated, in order to show itself to be unquestionably sincere.
All the factors behind what we do – they’re true, and they’re an important part of the story, and they need to be acknowledged. If everyone deserves a little bit of the blame – then everyone deserves a little bit of the blame. If circumstances conspired to contribute to our corruption (for the record, that alliteration was accidental, at first…) – then we can and perhaps should consider those circumstances. Life is complicated; blame is complicated. Humans are complicated. We can put it all up on the board in as many colors as we can find, and try to tease it all out. Later. But in the moment, the bottom line is that one person did something wrong, and in the moment, that one person has to really own up, not just “like.”
That’s how we know we really are taking responsibility.
It is possible to simultaneously take full responsibility for one’s actions and acknowledge the factors which led to those actions – but not if we mix it all up. “Mixing the confession and excuses” confuses the issue and risks watering down culpability. First, admit sin and take full responsibility; only then can we, separately, discuss factors which may have led to the sin and ways to improve our future. There’s a time and a place for it all.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.