Let us study the following sentences: "I'm incapable of
doing that." "I'm just not built for it." "I simply can't do
that." "Sorry, it doesn't fit in with my character."
Familiar, no? When did you last hear such a statement? Oh,
you remember? You tried to send a child to the grocer to
return the spoiled cheese he bought that morning, and whose
production date had expired a while back. The bashful child
writhed and shrugged his shoulders while spouting one of the
above sentences, adding a suggestion that his older sister
be sent for this particular errand.
The use of the above sample apologetic sentences is not
limited to pre bar mitzvah age. Sometimes even parents fling
these about like a ping pong game. Like the decidedly
unpleasant task of calling up so-and-so and telling him that
the suggestion we so generously offered last week is off and
we ask his forgiveness. Each side presents credible,
convincing arguments, in all honesty and sincerity, why they
are not the suitable person for that particular phone call.
Both employ variations of the excuse, "I'm incapable . . . "
with appropriate psychological rationalizations thrown in.
And in order to avoid embarrassing the other party, we try
our best to forget those instances when we, ourselves, with
all due respect, evaded similar unpleasant obligations on
the grounds that "I simply can't."
The big question, the crux of the matter, really is if this
justification is valid and correct. Is it really true that
the person who presents this excuse is actually incapable of
certain acts? Does the apologizer's personality really
render him incapable of doing certain things?
In order to test it, let us make a comparison with the world
of electronic devices. Many people ask what is so unique
about the invention called the computer. Today's world is
full of machines and sophisticated devices that encompass
all areas of life. But the computer reigns supreme. Why?
What's so special about it?
A careful analysis will lead us to the following insight:
every machine is built to serve a definite purpose and
designed accordingly. A sewing machine, for example, is a
clever mechanism, but all it can do is sew -- nothing else.
The most state-of-the-art air conditioner can only regulate
temperature, while an electric drill can only operate
according to its attachments. A lawn mower can only mow and
a washing machine -- wash clothing. The unique function of
each device is limited to its particular design. All except
for the computer. When a computer leaves the factory, it is
incapable of doing a thing. It must first be primed with a
program which will enable it to `understand' the directions
that are fed into it. But once it has been supplied with
these instructions, it can do anything according to that
data. A computer loaded with a word processing program will
function as a word processor. It may be able to translate to
another language, locate spelling errors, provide synonyms
and so on. This same computer can also operate as an
electronic engraving machine, or monitor the heartbeats and
breathing of a patient in an ICU emergency ward. It can also
guide a rocket to its destination, all according to the
program and data put in to its memory bank. The computer is
a universal instrument, a very general device that can be
adapted to every task in the world for which a program can
This distinction also exists between man and all other
living creatures. All living things are designed with a
specific purpose, and this is their function and destiny in
life. They each perform the tasks that suit their respective
internal program. A spider cannot build a nest, just like a
dog cannot fly and a bird cannot pull a plow, nor an ox spin
In distinction to this is man who can perform a vast
spectrum of activities, with his body and the extensions
thereof, that is, his instruments and inventions. He can
imitate the actions of all the various creatures, and do
much, much more.
Man is a universal creature, if we can say so ourselves. An
animal cannot go against its nature and instincts while man,
by virtue of his mind and will, finds a way to do whatever
he wishes, both in the physical and in the ethical sense. He
can penetrate outer space and cross the ocean in an atomic
submarine that goes under the icebergs of the poles. He can
sit in his home and converse with people at any point on the
The Torah even supports this view that man is almost
omnipotent, as a mortal. It is clear that the Torah would
not expect the impossible from him. But man can delude
himself into thinking that matters confined to the heart are
not within his capacity. Indeed, commandments like "You
shall not covet," "You shall not stray after your hearts,"
"You shall love the convert" and so on, testify that Hashem,
Who created man and commanded these precepts, knows that man
is certainly capable of complying with them. Even the most
primal instinct, that of survival, can knuckle under his
control. Hashem testifies to it when He commands a Jew to do
what is beyond his capacity. A Jew declares that due to his
refined and compassionate nature, he cannot kill a fly, to
say nothing of a human being. But he is wrong, for the
commandment of eradicating Amolek stands and testifies that
he is, indeed, capable of it; he can do it. Shmuel Hanovi,
sanctified from the womb, who was wholly spiritual to the
degree of prophecy -- was indeed capable of beheading Agog,
king of Amolek, with his own hands.
@Big Let Body=If we are men of truth, let us replace the
false phrase "I am incapable" with an accurate one like "I
find it difficult," "I need to take myself in hand and
overcome considerable resistance to be able to do that," "I
need time in order to convince myself that it is positive
and important before I can tackle it." These are honest
statements. Man is capable of many things, but some of them
are very difficult for him and require mental and emotional
preparation. A person is capable of stealing and cheating
and even killing. He must refrain from these because it is
forbidden, not because he is `incapable' of committing them.
A striking example is Yaakov Ovinu.
Yaakov exemplifies the characteristic of truth, "titein
emes leYaakov." To his sons, Shimon and Levi, who kill
the men of Shechem and liberate Dina, Yaakov says: "`You
have brought trouble on me to make me odious.' We promised
them that if they circumcised themselves, we would live in
peace. They will say that we deceived them." He remembered
this to their disfavor in his blessings on his deathbed.
Yet, on the other hand, when his mother commanded him,
through prophecy, he obeys and comes before his blind father
and `usurps' the blessings, as permissible and rightfully
his. He is capable of everything. Upon his first encounter
with Rachel, he says to her that he is her brother's kin, in
other words, that he can match him in chicanery, if need be
(see Rashi). Whoever claims that he is incapable of
deception does not necessarily express ethics and honesty
but limitation; he is handicapped, fettered. A perfect man
is capable of anything, but he operates within the Halacha
framework, according to what is truly right. Ethics is the
power of self control, not limitation or stricture, but
working within the accurate boundaries dictated by truth.
Let us not make peace with a child's excuse of "I can't." We
must explain to him that it is within his rights to return
to the grocer the cheese that was spoiled. We must review
the exact words he should say to the storekeeper, and even
accompany him part way as a sign of encouragement. But let
us not forego this educational exercise. We must not make
allowances for chinuch, even if this child is none
other than ourself!