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Bereishis: Where We Are and How We Got Here

Understanding and analyzing the pathways of human behavior is a focal point of both research and practice and allows patients, clinicians, and psychological scientists alike to shed light on what leads us to do the things we do, for better or for worse. In the shadow of nearly two months spent focusing on dissecting our misdeeds and trying to improve ourselves, we might be sick of this kind of analysis, and yet it is exactly at this moment of spiritual and emotional exhaustion that apathy can set in, rendering us vulnerable to the same mistakes for which we just finished atoning. Thrust quite ceremoniously back into reality as we live it, we may wonder, ‘how am I actually going to change the way I walk through life and stick to my commitment to be a better version of myself going forward?’ As with any behavior, we must begin at the beginning, and seek to understand the very origin of ourselves, our inclinations, and our existence.

Parshas Bereishis, the story of beginnings, recounts everything from the creation of the universe to the origins of mankind to the essence of original sin. In reading (1:27-2:8) about Adam and Chava’s first hours on earth, during which they are formed in God’s image and placed in Gan Eden with express permission to eat from the myriad fruits and trees provided with the exception of the Etz HaDaas, a rule that they almost immediately break, nearly every commentary asks the same question: From where did such a fall from grace derive?

A similar reaction may arise later in the Parsha, when we read about the story of Adam’s children, Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel). Seeking closeness and connection with their Creator, Kayin and Hevel offer Karbanos to Hashem. The Pasuk describes that Kayin initiated this idea, “VaYavei Kayin MiPri HaAdama Mincha La’Hashem,” and brought a sacrifice from his fruits (4:3). Hevel immediately follows in his path, but brings a different Karban, the choicest of his flock; Hashem sends a fire to consume Hevel’s but not Kayin’s sacrifice (4:4). Devastated and humiliated, Kayin kills his brother Hevel (4:8).

Despite our familiarity with this story, a careful reading begs the question: how did this come to pass? How can Kayin be bringing Karbanos to Hashem in one moment, and murdering his own brother in the next?

In both of these cases, Hashem turns to the sinner in question with one rhetorical inquiry. To Adam, Hashem says, “Ayekah,” where are you; to Kayin, He says, “Aye Hevel Achiv,” where is Hevel your brother? Of course, as the commentaries (Rashi and others) note, Hashem does not lack the knowledge to answer these questions for Himself. He knew very well the whereabouts of the respective subjects of His investigation. The purpose of these questions was to prompt Adam and Kayin to pause and consider where they were, to ask themselves, where do I stand spiritually in this moment in relation to where I stood only moments ago – before I sinned?

The power of the question “where am I?” is that it allows us to begin the process of what DBT therapists call a Behavior Chain Analysis. Starting at the point of disconnection, the moment of misstep when we did something we regret or have been trying not to do, we can work our way back to ask the arguably more pertinent question, “How did I get here?” A Behavior Chain is a way to help people identify thoughts, feelings, behaviors, events, and interactions that coalesce in a domino effect to lead to behaviors they are trying to change or stop; it is a way to understand the causes of behaviors, a means of tracing one’s steps in order to work toward creating a different outcome in the future.

In beginning anew spiritually after the Chagim, there is perhaps no better skill to acquire than that of being able to trace the various dominoes of a particular sin or struggle, and to begin to recognize the patterns, thought processes, emotions, and environmental factors that render us more vulnerable to the mistakes we are trying to mitigate. By asking “Ayekah,” Hashem is inviting Adam and Kayin – and by extension, us – to engage in the process of analyzing the links in the chain that led to their own devastating behaviors. With this perspective, “Where are you?” becomes “what led you here?” which in turn can lead to “how can we do this differently next time?”

Many Mefarshim outline detailed and incredibly powerful explanations of the root of Adam and Chava’s sin to address the question of how they came to sin in the first place. In a pre-Rosh Hashana shiur, Chevi Garfinkel outlines that the Yetzer Hara, embodied by the Nachash, draws us in through a systematic break down of our spiritual fortifications; by delving into the Psukim, we see that

In Sichos Mussar, R’ Chaim Shmulevitz goes back to the pesukim to analyze the breakdown of Kayin’s behavior in the moments before he kills Hevel. The Pasuk says, “Vayichar Likayin Meod, Vayiplu Panav,” and Kayin became very angry and his face fell. In the moments leading up to bringing his Karban, Kayin was excited, anticipating greater closeness with God, proud of his initiative. When Hevel’s sacrifice was accepted and his appeared to be rejected, he was immediately filled with anguish and distress. Hashem Himself tries to make Kayin aware of his volatile emotional state, asking him (4:7), “Lamah charah lach, vilama naflu panecha,” why are you so upset? Hashem goes on to advise Kayin against the pitfalls of being pulled by our emotions and urges, of being blinded by anger, jealously, fear, and pride: “LaPesach Chatas Roveitz, v’eilecha tishukaso,” sin crouches at the door, its urges pull at you, “V’Ata Timshol Bo,” yet you can rule over it (4:8).

How can we master sin and struggle? By becoming aware of the thoughts, feelings, and urges that get us there.

There is a concept in statistics known as regression to the mean, the tendency of outlying or extreme data points to eventually move closer to the average of the sample. As we return to the mundane existence of a post-Chagim life, after spending much time immersed in a more heightened spiritual state, regression is common – but it does not have to be inevitable. Parshas Bereishis poses the question, “where are you?” and gifts us with the power to further assess, when needed, “how did I get here?” We may, in the future, mess up. Parshas Bereishis in many ways presents us with the archetype of human fallibility, but it also reminds us of the incredible power of self-assessment to lead to repentance and change. HaKadosh Baruch Hu misses us already, and is always seeking closeness with us. He knows that this closeness at times feels elusive; preemptively, He calls out to us, “where are you?”

This week, should you find yourself engaging or tempted to engage in a behavior you just recently vowed to stop, try not to berate yourself. Rather, pause, take a step back, and ask yourself, “how did I get here?” By retracing the thoughts, feelings, events, and vulnerability factors along your path, you will hopefully achieve not only increased compassion for yourself, but also a greater understanding of how to address any weak links in the chain for next time.

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