The first two sections of the Torah, Bereshit and Noah, present one of the basic problems of the human behavior and feeling: the attitude toward responsibility. I call it a problem, since this attitude has ups, downs and failures.
Human beings, we suffer from hypo-responsibility and hyper-responsibility. Sometimes we try to evade our duties and being accountable for our actions. In other instances we exaggerate in fixing limits (to ourselves, as well as to others) acting with disproportionate zeal.
Yes, we also do things with the right, constructive and positive responsibility. But in many areas and many times we all, without exception, fall into the extremes of too high or too low responsibility.
God created the Human Being with the capacity of discerning between values, of measuring causes and consequences and of creating a moral system. This very capacity may become, however, a double edged sword. We may feel we are locked in by these very values and try to escape, avoiding thus our responsibility. On the other hand, we may actually be controlled by the fear of erring, of sinning, fear of not knowing how to discern, remaining thus enslaved by our own axiological behavior.
Parshat Bereshit presents some examples of this human failure in implementing responsibility. Reading this text should be a sort of calling to overcome this failures and to try to learn, as many times as necessary, the subtle art of living in responsibility.
The story of the forbidden fruit, of the tree of knowledge of good and bad, is a clear example of this failure both because of hypo- and of hyper-responsibility. Both attitudes lead to destructive consequences.
God forbids the Human being to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad: “as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition was introduced before God divided the Human being into two – a male and a female. The ban is thus valid for both the man and the woman.
The serpent asks a tricky question: “So, God said to you that you shall not eat of any tree from the Garden?” (Gen. 3:1).
Now, a responsible answer should have been: “He has only forbidden us to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad”. But the woman, reacting out of hyper-responsibility, adds a restriction and declares: “It is about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said neither to eat it, nor to touch it“ (id. 3:3). This addendum moves the forbidden thing away… and makes it more tempting. Trespassing this new self-imposed limit will not only have no punishment, but will modify the perception of the original ban, as well. From now on the reasoning may be: “Nothing happened to me when I touched the tree (contravening the self-imposed restriction), therefore nothing will happen to me if I eat the fruit (contravening the original ban)”.
Exaggerating the limits, even though it comes out of the desire to avoid transgression, derives into the saturation and finally the revocation of the original injunction, violating thus the very norm meant to preserve.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhakee, France 12th ctry.) explains, regarding Eve’s addendum: “She added to the commandment, therefore she was led to diminish from it. That is why it is written (Proverbs 30:6): ‘Add thou not unto His words’ “ (Rashi to Gen 3:3).
We find also in the Talmud that this verse is a clear example of whoever adds, in the end diminishes (BT Sanhedrin 29a).
Now God asks the man: “Have you eaten of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” (Gen 3:11). Why God, being omniscient, needs to ask? He already knows what had happened! God does not ask to know, but to encourage the man to implement responsibility. However, here we see a failure because of hypo-responsibility: “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (id. 12). “It wasn’t me!”, says the man, “it was You! And the woman!” The man focuses only on part of the reality to avoid taking any responsibility.
What would have happened hadn’t the women reacted by hyper-responsibility?
What would have happened hadn’t the man reacted by hypo-responsibility?
It is useless to speculate about what would have been. The Torah challenges us, human beings reading it, to take the path on which those primeval beings did not dare walk.
It is upon us to react by a responsible responsibility.