It’s not difficult to imagine Benjamin Netanyahu and his Napoleon, former defense and prime minister Ehud Barak, self-incarcerated in their secreted Garden of Eden, whispering invectives towards the political, military and intelligence elite who were urging a bite into the alluring apple offered by the Eves and Serpents of our day.
The human tendency to avoid moral responsibility didn’t begin with Netanyahu and Barak’s decision to blame others for Israeli impotence as the depth and sophistication of Iran’s nuclear program became an irreversible reality. As he pointed to others for preventing military action against Iran, Israel’s most decorated soldier was making a choice as old as human history itself.
When Adam eats from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, God confronts him: “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?” Adam quickly defends himself: “The woman whom You gave me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.”
Adam is dividing the blame equally between the Almighty and the woman. “The woman whom You gave me … I didn’t ask for her. She was Your idea and Your creation. She gave me of the tree. The eating was her idea not mine.”
After he passes the moral buck to Eve, God asks her: “What is this that you have done?” Not to be outdone, Eve replies: “The serpent beguiled me and I did eat.”
“It’s really the fault of the cowardly snake, not me,” Eve insists.
The Serpent would undoubtedly continue passing the buck.
Blaming our actions (or inactions) on others is one of our most persistent human traits.
For two decades, Benjamin Netanyahu missed few opportunities to sound the alarm from every soapbox that the mullahs in Tehran were rapidly advancing their mastery of the nuclear cycle and weapons capacity. Many times, the Prime Minister and other senior officials said Israel would, if needed, act alone. Yet, as we learned this week, at the moment of truth, actually at several moments of truth, Netanyahu and Barak, with the power and responsibility to both influence and act, bet Israel’s security on the apple offered by a world that gave little heed less than a century earlier to the genocide of European Jewry. How many of our parents, grandparents and children were murdered as American Jewry debated the pro’s and con’s of standing united to call for concerted action against the railways, crematoria and death camps from which millions departed?
Today, as an increasingly isolated Israel faces one of the most difficult decisions in modern history, those who could have created a different reality are searching for Eves among the nation’s closest allies and Serpents among her antagonists; Eves and Serpents to blame for either bringing the reborn state of Israel perilously close to an existential threat or briefly delaying the despair, darkness and death that will be unleashed by the ayatollahs’ missiles on their mad march to regional domination.
Every age has its own Eves and Serpents.
In an earlier time, as Shakespeare captured through Edmund’s voice in King Lear, heavenly bodies served as Eves and Serpents:
This is the excellent foppery of the world that when we are sick in fortune often the surfeit of our own behavior we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, the stars; as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.”
Our tradition does not let us off the hook so easily. It looks upon us as free moral agents who have the capacity to choose.
To be sure, external influences have a vital impact. These factors are real and powerful, but human will and determination is no less powerful. Those who sought and won their nation’s highest level of responsibility and authority cannot pass the buck.
We are not only shaped by our environment; we shape it. We are not only the creatures of circumstances; we are also the creators.
DNA may determine if our eyes are blue or brown. Height may be biologically determined. Yet we choose whether to look upon each other with indifference or compassion. We mold through our actions — especially the most difficult choices that include life and death uncertainty, a yearning for faith, and the call for courage — the human stature for which we will be known.
Environment determines language and pronunciation; whether words are cruel or gentle, demeaning or persuading, conniving, convincing or comforting depends on our own decisions.
Whether our passions, appetites and instincts rule us or we rule them is left for each of us to determine.
One of the hallmark verses of the Torah tells us: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life.”
With appreciation to Rabbi Sidney Greenberg Z”L.