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Taking Responsibility

The flood of information, photos and videos, opinions, condemnations, prayers, and promises that have emerged in response to the horrific massacre at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas stun us into a raging silence. A name and a place that most of us never knew about is now emblazoned in our minds. The devastation we permit ourselves to feel for the parents of innocent children and families of the adults who were killed is simply heartbreaking. Since the opening chapters of Genesis, we have been called to take responsibility for senseless murder. How shall we heed the voice in the wake of yet another human tragedy? The Torah prompts our thinking with a question.

After Cain kills his brother, Abel, God asks, “What have you done?” There are echoes of God’s voice from the Garden when God asks Eve a similar question after partaking of the forbidden fruit. More than an omniscient being patiently awaiting a response, God’s question is evoking a sense of responsibility. In the Garden, Eve blames her behavior on the snake. Here, Cain doesn’t respond at all.

Shouldn’t Cain have known that taking the life of his brother was forbidden? Didn’t his father Adam confront the consequences of forbidden behavior prompting their expulsion from the Garden before? He must have been compelled to explain to his children where they came from or what the rules of living are. It’s plausible that the story of expulsion came up once at the dinner table.

Cain’s reaction to his brother Abel’s offering is a shining example of responsibility to the other. If he didn’t care in some way, he wouldn’t have done anything. God’s inquiry to Cain, “What have you done?,” is more than a search for the details of the crime committed. All the more so, Cain doesn’t respond with a sense of innocence, as if to say, “What do you mean, what have I done? I haven’t done anything!” Cain’s tacit acknowledgement that his action has prompted God’s inquiry exemplifies this pivotal step toward the cultivation of responsibility. God is not simply dictating the proper behavior expected of the human being. God seeks the awareness that can only come when responsibility to other human beings is present.

Either Cain should have known what was expected of him, especially since his mother was asked the same question, or Cain genuinely does not comprehend the consequences of his actions; that of murder and unrestrained jealousy. The repetition of the question, an extremely rare occurrence in the entire Tanakh, suggests that Cain’s behavior may not have been premeditated or comprehended.

God does not need to be repeated.

Responsibility cannot be expressed once and reckoned to our merits in perpetuity. It isn’t a chance occurrence. It is a state of being, in which the awareness of our actions and their consequences is expected in every situation. We fail most when we can or should be responsible and avoid our duty. It's time, once again, for us to take responsibility.

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