What is the purpose of God asking man questions?

    October-November 2009            
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Why did G-d bother asking?

By Amos ben Ami

In the beginning of the Torah, both when Adam sinned and when Cain killed his brother Hevel, G-d asks a seemingly redundant question. When Adam sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, G-d asks him, "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9) as if G-d doesn't know everything! Rashi explains that the reason that He asks man where is he is only to begin the conversation gently rather than begin by pointing out man's sin.

Similarly after Cain killed his brother Hevel, G-d comes to Cain and asks him, "Where is your brother Hevel?" (Gen. 4:9) again as if G-d does not know. There reason for this is that G-d wanted to begin the conversation gently without beginning by accusing Cain of murder.

But what difference does it make if G-d begins gently acting as if He does not know what had happened or if He comes out of heaven and accuses them directly of their sin? In either case, man sinned; what is there to gain by asking as if He does not know?

Let us compare this to a family who has finished their meal and the father decides to put his dessert in the refrigerator and have it at a later time instead of eating it with the rest of the family. If, later in the evening, the father sees one of the children go into the refrigerator and take the cake and eat it, now that the father knows who ate it, how should he approach the child? Should he say directly, "why did you eat my piece of cake?" or should he merely ask, "what happened to my piece of cake?"

In the first case, if he directly accuses the son of eating his cake, the son can either try to deny it or provide an excuse for eating it. In the second case when the father merely asks what happened to the cake, the son can either say he doesn't know what happened to the cake (which is tantamount to denial) or the son can provide an excuse. Since in both cases the son can choose to lie or to admit his guilt, what is advantageous in one approach over the other? No matter what the son answers, the father knows that the sons ate the cake; the only difference is if the son is honest he will admit his error – but still that does not explain the difference of approach.

A plausible answer could be that perhaps that if the boy admits to eating the cake he will get a lesser penalty, but his guilt is still the same.

The truth is that G-d is not really interested in penalties or punishments. G-d is interested in a positive relationship with us. For us to have this relationship, we must respect G-d and His commandments. As long as we respect Him and honor His commandments, we can have that close and proper relationship, but once we act in a disrespectful manner, G-d takes his desire for a close relationship and distances himself from us.

This is not in punishment for our actions as much as it is an outcome of our actions. G-d wanted Adam and Cain to admit that they had sinned and to show regret for their negative actions. Instead of doing that, Adam blamed his wife and Cain acted as if he did not know anything about his brother.

By acting in such a manner they showed disrespect towards G-d. This disrespect caused a distancing of man from G-d. If the father enters gently into conversation with the son, he shows respect for the boy; this should normally cause a respectful reply. Similarly with G-d, He shows respect for us and enters gently into the conversation; if we are whole with G-d we should answer back in a respectful manner.

When G-d is close to us, we have divine protection but when He distances Himself from man, man is left alone and then evil comes upon man.

This is the reason that G-d came to man with a question and not an accusation. G-d is not interested in punishment, but rather in man having a close relationship with Him. It is the relationship that is paramount when we speak of man and G-d, not a crime and punishment scenario.

Let us always remember this, that it is not easy to be honest in this world. Adam and Cain talked directly to G-d, they knew Him like no other man knew Him, yet they succumbed to falsehood and prevarication. It is not easy or pleasant to sin; it is even more difficult to see in ourselves the sin, but this is our work in this world. If we can not be totally sin-free, let us be honest and respectful of ourselves and of G-d.


from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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