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What is the worst quality, the worst character trait, that a person can have?

This was the question posed by one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived – Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the renowned leader of the Jewish world during the destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath – to his five students. In his words: “Which is the path that a person must distance himself from?”

The students offered various poignant responses, including “ayin ra’ah” – a negative outlook on other people; and “lev ra
a bad heart.” But one student gave a very mysterious answer: “loveh ve’eno meshalem – borrowing without repaying.”

Of course, we understand that borrowing without repaying is a terrible thing to do. But why would this qualify as the worst of all character traits? What’s more, can we even consider this a character trait? This is something bad that some people might do once, perhaps twice, perhaps several times if they’re particularly evil. But how does this specific wrong “deserve” being named the single worst character trait that a person can have?

The Blame Game

To find our answer, let’s go back to a famous story – to the first crime ever committed in human history.

After Kayin killed his brother, Hevel, Gd spoke to Kayin and asked, “Where is your brother, Hevel?” (Beresheet 4:9). Kayin famously replied, “I don’t know,” adding, “Hashomer ahi
,” which is commonly understood to mean, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Midrash Tanhuma, however, explains Kayin’s response differently – in a way that gives us a crucial insight into
human nature.

According to the Midrash, the word “anochi” hearkens to the Ten Commandments, which begin with the foundational pronouncement, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha I am the Lord your Gd.” When Kayin answered Gd, “Hashomer ahi anochi,” what he was really saying is, “My brother’s keeper is Anochi – You!!!”

Meaning – Kayin was casting the blame for his brother’s murder on…Gd!

That’s right – Kayin killed his brother, but in his mind, it was Gd’s fault.

The Midrash explains that Kayin told Gd something along the lines of, “Look, You’re the One who watches over, guards and protects all creatures. If You didn’t want Hevel to die, then You should have protected him! It’s Your fault!”

The Midrash draws an analogy to a thief who manages to sneak his way past a guard post and robs the neighborhood the guard was supposed to be protecting. When the thief is caught, he says, “Don’t blame me – blame the guard! My job is to try to steal, and his job is to stop me. I did my job, but he didn’t do his!!” Similarly, the Midrash explains, Kayin claimed that he was not to blame for what he did to Hevel – because Gd should have stopped him!

What the Midrash is teaching us is that human nature leads people to refuse to accept blame, to deny responsibility, to find excuses for their misconduct. One of the hardest things a person can do is to say, “I failed. I made a terrible mistake. I was wrong.” It is so difficult that after Kayin killed Hevel, since he had nobody else on whom to cast the blame – after all, the only other people alive were his parents, who certainly did not want their son to die!! – he blamed Gd for not preventing him from perpetrating this crime. This is how far a person will go to absolve himself of accountability for
his mistakes!

More Grievous Than Sin

Kayin was punished severely for killing his brother – but he could have escaped punishment had he acknowledged guilt and accepted responsibility. Gd is willing to forgive our mistakes. He created us, and He knows we are frail, fragile human beings. But what He is far less willing to forgive is our refusal to own up to our failures, to admit we were wrong, and to take responsibility for our actions.

The same thing happened one generation earlier, when Adam ate from the forbidden tree. When Gd confronted him, Adam cast the blame on his wife, Havah: “The woman that You placed beside me – she gave me [fruit] from the tree, and I ate” (Beresheet 3:12). Adam could have saved himself and the rest of humanity from the devastating punishment for his sin, had he taken responsibility for what he did, instead of passing the blame onto his wife. Gd is prepared to forgive – but as long as we admit that we acted wrongly.

Another famous example is the story of King Shaul, who was commanded to wage war against the hostile nation of Amalek and destroy all its property. But Shaul violated the command, bringing Amalek’s herds of cattle back with him so they can be offered as sacrifices to Gd. The prophet, Shemuel, approached Shaul at Gd’s behest and asked him why he brought the animals with him. Shaul blamed the people, saying that it was their decision to keep the animals alive and bring them back. Shemuel then conveyed to Shaul Gd’s message that he was fired – he could no longer be king, as he violated Gd’s word and refused to own up to it.

Gd can tolerate our sins, but He does not tolerate our excuses.

Gd says through the prophet Yirmiyahu (2:35), “Hineni nishpat otach al omrech lo hatati – I am hereby taking you to judgment for saying, ‘I did not sin’.” Gd judges us harshly not when we sin, but when we refuse to admit that we sin.

King Shlomo teaches us in the Book of Mishleh (28:13), “Mechaseh fesha’av lo yatzliach, umodeh ve’ozev yeruham – One who covers his transgressions shall not succeed, but he who confesses and abandons [his wrongdoing] earns compassion.” He does not say that we succeed and earn Gd’s compassion by avoiding transgressions. Rather, he says that we succeed and earn Gd’s compassion by confessing our transgressions and trying to make ourselves better. We are not expected to be perfect, but we are absolutely expected to acknowledge our imperfections, to take responsibility for our mistakes.

The Irresponsible Borrower

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) explained on this basis the significance of “loveh ve’eno meshalem” – the character trait of “borrowing without paying.”

This does not refer to a hard-working professional who lost his job and can’t make his mortgage payments. Rather, Rav Shmuelevitz explains, this refers to an irresponsible borrower, somebody who borrows money without considering whether or not he will be able to repay. This refers to a person who pulls out his credit card at whim, mindlessly racking up debt without any idea how or when he will have the money to cover it.

There is good reason, Rav Chaim writes, that one of Rabban Yohanan’s students pointed to this quality as the one most antithetical to Torah Judaism. Because one of the most important foundations of Torah Judaism is taking responsibility for our “debts,” for what we owe Gd, for what we owe our families, for what we owe our community, and for what we owe ourselves. Making mistakes and incurring “debt” is understandable, and to an extent, even inevitable. But we cannot be reckless about our “debt.” We need to accept the responsibility to “repay” it – in the form of repentance, by admitting our guilt and working to improve ourselves.

The 100 Cries

Which brings us to the month of Elul, the month during which we are to prepare ourselves for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah.

The symbol of Rosh Hashanah – and perhaps more generally, of the entire High Holiday period – is, undoubtedly, the shofar. The accepted custom is to blow more shofar sounds than we are strictly required to by halachah, and to blow a total of 100 sounds. According to one source, the 100 shofar sounds we blow commemorate the 100 cries sounded by a certain woman while she waited for her son to return home. She cried and cried, hoping he would return, imagining in her mind different possibilities as to what might have happened to her son. But as time passed and her son did not return, she was forced to come to terms with the painful reality that he had died.

Who was this woman? We might assume she was a famous tzadeket, a legendary saintly figure. But she wasn’t.

In fact, she wasn’t Jewish. And her son, for whom she wept, was a ruthless general who waged a vicious war against Beneh Yisrael.

Her son was Sisera, the military hero of the Canaanites, to whom they looked to defeat and destroy Beneh Yisrael. But instead, Beneh Yisrael miraculously crushed the Canaanite army, and their decorated hero was killed by a woman – Yael – who shrewdly pretended to offer him refuge in her tent.

The prophetess Devorah sang a famous song of praise to Hashem after this victory (Shoftim, chapter 5), in which she described how Sisera’s mother wept as she waited in vain by the window, waiting for her son to return. As the hours went by, she envisioned him celebrating, perhaps in a bar drinking with his troops, or perhaps collecting and distributing the valuable spoils seized from the enemy. Eventually, though, she realized that her son was not returning home. According to tradition, she wept 100 times – and so we blow 100 sounds with the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Why, of all people, is it Sisera’s mother whom we commemorate through the sounding of the shofar? There have been, unfortunately, many holy, righteous women throughout history who wept in pain after experiencing terrible tragedy.
What is unique about the mother of Sisera’s cries that they are forever memorialized through the sounding of the shofar?

Rav Shmuelevitz explained that what we recall is this woman’s thought process as she sat by the window and the clock ticked. Understandably afraid to consider the most likely possibility – that her son fell in battle – she made up stories. Maybe he was in a bar. Maybe he was resting. Maybe he was collecting riches. For as long as she could, she devised every scenario her imagination was capable of devising so she could ignore the truth.

And this is precisely what the shofar calls upon us NOT to do.

As the judgment of Rosh Hashanah approaches, our instinct might be to enlist our imagination to help us ignore the truth. To blame him, her, them, whomever or whatever, so we can comfortably exonerate ourselves. The shofar cries like Sisera’s mother cried after her “excuses” were all gone. This is how we are to “cry” – without excuses, without casting the blame on others, without making up stories.

Elul is all about taking responsibility. It’s about stopping to pretend that everything we do is fine, and that the problems lie elsewhere. It’s about recognizing the truth, as Sisera’s mother eventually was forced to do, and owning up to our mistakes and our faults.

Our Generation’s Excuses

Today it is so easy, and so convenient, to point fingers all around us and make excuses.

We’ve all heard this countless times, and for good reason: we live in a time when we face enormous spiritual challenges that no generation of Jews has ever faced before. We live in a society whose values, beliefs, culture and lifestyle are, in many ways, antithetical to ours, and modern technology puts these values and norms right in front of our faces – quite literally, in fact – around the clock. We live in a time of constant temptation. We live in a time of great confusion, as we are exposed to so many conflicting ideas. We live in a time of distraction, when it is so very hard to focus our attention on the things we are supposed to be focusing on – Torah, prayer, mitzvot, family. The challenges are enormous.

But let’s not turn those challenges into excuses.

Let’s remember that when all is said and done, we bear full responsibility for our decisions and our actions.

It’s easy to blame the internet. It’s easy to blame the smartphone. It’s easy to blame American culture. It’s easy to blame our politicians. It’s easy to blame the schools. It’s easy to blame the community. It’s easy to blame a million and one things. But at a certain point, we need to take responsibility.

Of course, we need to brainstorm and strategize for how to deal with the unique challenges of the 21st century. Absolutely, we should always be working and striving to make our institutions better and to help our community improve. But our primary, most important responsibility, particularly during this time of year, is to work and strive to make ourselves better. The idea of Elul is to get us to stop focusing on what he, she, or they are doing wrong, and to focus instead on how we can improve, on how we can make better choices.

Our High Holiday Plea

King David cries to Gd in Tehillim (41:5), “Refa’ah nafshi ki hatati lach – Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.”

Surprisingly, King David says to Gd that he should be cured specifically because he sinned. Shouldn’t the opposite be true? Shouldn’t he have asked to be healed even though he sinned?

The story is told of a fellow who approached the one in the synagogue reciting the prayer for ill patients, and gave the name of a patient for whom the congregation should pray. The hazzan heard the name, and was startled. The name was “John the son of Mary.” This fellow wanted him to pray for a non-Jew.

“Why do you want us to pray for him?” the hazzan asked.

“It’s very important that he lives,” the man replied. “I desperately need this man to live. I’m begging you – please pray for him with all your heart and soul!!!”

“Why?” the hazzan asked, overcome by curiosity.

“Because he owes me money!!”

The Maggid of Duvna (1740-1804) explained King David’s prayer along similar lines. He pleaded to Gd, “I have a debt to repay!! Don’t take me from this world yet! I have sinned, and I need to repent and change. This takes time. Please give me this opportunity. Please give me more time. I want to repay my debt – please give me a chance to
do so!!”

This was King David’s plea, and this should be our High Holiday plea, as well. We come before Gd and ask for life, health, prosperity, and happiness, but we cannot forget about our “debts.” We need to acknowledge what we “owe,” what we need to change and improve, and then beg Gd for the opportunity to make these changes and improvements. This is what we should be asking for.

The shofar calls on us to stop making excuses, to stop blaming others, to start accepting responsibility for who we are – and making the commitment to be much better, so we can make the coming year a year of personal growth and achievement, a year when we reach higher and aspire for more. May we all be blessed with such a year, amen.