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History’s First Complaint

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It was all her fault,” the first man, referring to the first woman, told their Creator, establishing the principle of “cherchez la femme” in the very first week of history.

In a more precise translation of the Hebrew verse in Bereishis, which Jews the world over will be focused on soon as we begin the public reading of the Written Torah anew, what Adam said was: “The woman whom You provided to be with me, it was she who gave me of the tree and I ate.”

No wonder that the rabbis of the Talmud branded Adam, for those words, an ingrate, a “denier [literally, ‘overturner’] of a favor.”

What is intriguing and may be significant is the word Adam used for “whom,” asher. It is a common word, and can mean either “that” or “who” or “whom.” But it is often contracted to a single letter, shin, appended to the word that follows.

One place where it isn’t so shortened is in the Creator’s words to Moshe Rabbeinu, announcing the production of a second pair of Ten Commandment Tablets, to replace the ones “asher shibarta,” “that you shattered.”

While that phrase may seem to telegraph disapproval, the Talmudic Amora Resh Lakish conveyed a tradition that the word asher should be read there as implying quite the opposite, a pun on the phrase y’yasher kochacha, a congratulatory blessing (that might literally if awkwardly be translated: “may your strength proceed straight!”). So that the phrase “that you shattered” becomes “congratulations for having shattered.” (Yevamos, 62a)

Could the same word in Adam’s mouth imply something similar?

It certainly wouldn’t seem to, at least not on the surface. But surfaces are, well, just surfaces.

No, Adam does not seem to be expressing gratitude to G‑d, but rather to be complaining to Him, blaming his own sin on the partner his Creator had seen fit to give him.

Nevertheless, the Torah’s inclusion of the elsewhere-congratulatory asher in the first human’s complaint may hint at a deep truth: Sometimes griping masks something very different. Something not readily obvious—even, perhaps, at least consciously, to the griper. Complaining can cover up something deeper and more positive.

It’s a truth that many a spouse, parent, and teacher has gleaned from experience. Grousing can be a strange psychological expression of disappointment in the grouser himself, not the groused-about. “It’s all your fault!” sometimes can mean the very opposite.

Adam may have been, in the Talmud’s phrase, an “overturner of a favor,” someone who inverted a gift into a burden. But that phrase itself is telling. To invert something usually requires recognizing it first as right-side-up. Might part of Adam have fully recognized that his wife was not only a Divine gift but a divine one too, and might his complaint have been a misguided projection of his own guilt?

It isn’t that the first woman was free of blame. When G‑d pronounces the punishments, she is included. But it was Adam who had been commanded not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; her sin was essentially complicity in his doing so. The buck, though, stopped with Adam. And he surely, at least subconsciously, realized that. Might the word asher subtly hint to Adam’s essential recognition of the wonderful gift that his wife was, even as he sought to mitigate his sin on her account?

The speculation might be overreaching. But it is intriguing that immediately after G‑d’s pronouncements comes the verse “The man called his wife’s name Chava, because she was the mother of all life [chai].” Not exactly a show of resentment.

To be sure, an ingrate is sometimes, well, just an ingrate. But more often than we might realize, what may seem to be simple unthankfulness may also contain a measure of appreciation.

So the next time someone acts as if he or she doesn’t recognize what you’ve done for him or her, stop a minute and, rather than react with umbrage, consider the possibility that just under the ingratitude something very different might lie. v

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.

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Posted by on September 17, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.