Responsibility for yourself, your brother, the other

The Hebrew Bible relays examples of disobedience, struggle that result in feats of resilience.

May 2, 2013 22:42
3 minute read.
Reading the bible.

bible_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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On a trip to Haifa to meet potential collaborators for a project on resilience, I told my colleagues that one of the main attitudes toward development of resilience is taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Nabil Shibli – a Beduin from Mount Tabor in the Lower Galilee – then taught me that the Hebrew word for “responsibility” – “ahrayut” – originated in the most ancient dispute of Man with God.

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“Of course,” said he, “the human being lost, but there is a profound, eternal lesson here.”

The biblical story – in Genesis 4:9 – is that shortly after Abel’s assassination by his older brother Cain, the assassin was approached by God, who pretended to be puzzled and naive.

God asked: “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain responded: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did not take responsibility for his actions.

Not only did he deny killing his only brother – “ah” in Hebrew – but he even denied any responsibility for his safety and well-being.

Another scholar told me that the origin of aharayut is actually from “aher” – the other.

I believe that this is a case in which all are correct. Responsibility is for your brother as well as for the other, and indeed for yourself.

Following our return to Jerusalem, I wanted to confirm Shibli’s version of ahrayut and bought an Hebrew Bible (which I did not have in my hotel room). I am thankful to Shibli, the proud Muslim Beduin, who inspired me to reread the Bible from Bereshit – from the beginning.

I noticed that the story of Cain and Abel is the second biblical story of disobedience of God and denial of responsibility. The first one was the consumption of the fruit of the Tree Of Knowledge and the ensuing ability to distinguish between Good and Evil, which is a divine attribute (and is a necessary moral compass for resilience).

When asked by God, “Where are you?” Adam blamed his hiding on his newly acquired modesty for which he blamed his God-given wife. She, in her turn, blamed the snake.

Factually, they all told the truth. Nonetheless, they were all guilty and did not assume responsibility. So, all culprits were punished and God created the need for resilience.

The woman, who was tempted first, was cursed with a quadruple hardship – multiple sufferings and depressions culminating with the pain of delivering babies. Furthermore, she is “destined to lust for her mate and he will rule her.”

She was, however, designated as the main nemesis of Evil, symbolized by the snake who tempted her. She, her seed and offspring will be in an eternal struggle with the snake – Evil.

She is also destined to overcome the hardship and regain equality with her man. Once Adam was pressed, he acknowledged: Eve – Hava in Hebrew – is the mother of all life.

It is of interest that the Maharal of Prague (c1520-1609), the genius rabbi famous in folklore as the creator of the Golem of Prague, interpreted the sages’ Midrash on female and male songs and singing (Shemot Raba 23:11) in a similar context of gender equality and difference, fertility, stability and resilience. The two biblical names for a female reflect her equality to her male counterpart – Ish-Isha – as well as her unique strength – fertile motherhood of all life – Hava. According to the Maharal, that fertility entails instability and sharp changes (which, in my opinion are the underlying patho-physiology of reproductive-related disorders), but also the ability to return to routine “normal” life. This is her inherent traditional capability – developing resilience through a constant struggle for it.

As for Adam, he was forced to be resilient. He was sentenced to hard labor until his last day on earth, no excuses, ifs and buts. If you want to eat, you will sweat – it’s your action and your responsibility. (Genesis 3:1-20)

The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright scholar for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.

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