Three Jewish grandmothers were sitting on a park bench on Delancey Street. Beatrice beamed as she exclaimed, “My son, the doctor, he adores me. In fact, he just bought me a condo in Miami Beach and a Lincoln Continental to keep in Florida.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” responded Sue. “My son takes me on annual exotic vacations. In fact, we just came back from a cruise to Spain.”

“Truly impressive,” chimed in Julie, the third yiddishe mama, “but listen to the kind of son I have. Every week he pays $500 for an appointment with his therapist, and he spends the entire session talking about me!”

Although the nature-versus-nurture debate still wages, both sides share an underlying premise—that there is a powerful force (nature or nurture) controlling, or at least heavily influencing, our decisions. Am I always late because of my genetic makeup, or is it because my mom was always running behind? And while no one will argue that man’s psyche is a tabula rasa, the question is: To what extent do we control the choices that we make? Whom can I blame? Where does my choice begin?

The Torah deals with this complex issue on many occasions. Credence and compassion are given to the power of our internal environment. At the same time, accountability and responsibility are of the most basic tenets of Jewish philosophy. Deuteronomy 21:1‑9 speaks a profound message about the question of blame, by way of analogy.

The scenario described is as follows: If a man is found dead in an empty field and we don’t know who killed him, the elders of the city that is closest to the corpse should kill a young calf and proclaim, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]. Atone for Your people, Israel, whom You have redeemed, Oh L‑rd, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among Your people Israel.”

At the most basic level, this mitzvah demonstrates local leaders’ accountability for an unmarked death. It prevents a diffusion of responsibility that can easily occur in society.

But there is also a hidden story portrayed here. It is the story of our lives. The man found dead in an empty field represents a man who falls prey to his evil inclination. The evil within him kills out his Divine identity, and he is left in an empty place, bereft of guidance and inspiration. What should he do? The Torah writes that he should lift his eyes up to G‑d and say: “My hands did not shed this blood! This web of sins in which I am entrapped is not my fault. After all, it is You, G‑d, who brought my soul down from its lofty abode in heaven and into the material world. It is truly Your fault! Therefore, I can ask You to atone for my sin.”

Good old Jewish chutzpah!

This may seem like the ultimate cop-out of responsibility. It’s all G‑d’s fault! Let Him take the blame. But listen closely to the implication of these words. The sinner is saying, “This is not who I really am. I am a wholesome and spiritual being. This nasty course that I’m on—it’s not the real me. The real me, my soul, is brazenly shouting out to G‑d and saying, ‘You must allow me to reconnect with You!’”

Perhaps the message is to acknowledge the many challenges that were stimulated by internal and external variables. They were given to us from G‑d. We must call out to G‑d from our core, and ask Him for strength because of, and not in spite of, our challenges.