Cheating on tests is an everyday occurrence. According to one study, some seventy percent of American students admitted to having done so at one time or another. For many, it seems, it's an acceptable path to academic success. The only crime is getting caught.

But if you do get caught, then what? Say you're sorry and promise never to do it again? Plead for clemency?

A student at the University of Kent in England who was caught plagiarizing took a slightly different approach, perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of the 21st century. According to Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology and a specialist in litigation there, the student is suing the university, contending that he had been cheating for three years and that his teachers were at fault for failing to catch him sooner!

This is perhaps the most outrageous example to date of what has come to be known as the "compensation culture," in which litigants seeking monetary compensation for personal injury are swelling court calendars. But more than a judicial phenomenon, it bespeaks a disturbing shift in attitude toward life's difficulties. Whereas once, acceptance of suffering and assumption of responsibility were considered admirable traits, today they are viewed as a lack of fighting spirit. On the contrary, suing to make a fortune out of misfortune is equated with standing up for one's rights.

But if you think that the Kent student's claim is something unprecedented in the annals of chutzpah, you're mistaken. The truth is, shifting the blame is a very old story -- as old as the Bible.

Cain made an offering to God which was rejected in favor of his brother Abel's offering, which was of superior quality. In a jealous rage, he slew him, bringing murder into the world. Whereupon God approached him, asking, "Where is Abel, your brother?"

The commentaries explain that although according to Jewish tradition God is omniscient, all-knowing, and therefore Abel's death was already known to Him, He was merely initiating a dialogue in order to give Cain an opportunity to confess and repent his sin. Instead, Cain made the infamous reply, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Thus, the first murderer in history was also the one to invent sarcasm.

The Midrash reveals that there was more to Cain's words than brazen denial: " 'Am I my brother's keeper? You," Cain said to God, "are the keeper of all creation, and You ask me what happened to him?' " The Midrash explains by way of a parable: "It is comparable to a thief who has stolen at night, eluding the watchman. The next morning, however, the watchman catches the thief, and says to him: 'Why did you steal those things?' 'I am a thief," he answers, "and I was plying my trade. You are a watchman. Why did you abandon your trade?' So too did Cain say to God: 'I killed him. [But]You created me with an evil inclination. You are the Watchman over all, and you allowed me to kill him. You are the one who killed him. Had You accepted my offering, like his, I would not have been jealous of him.' "

Cain's attempt to deflect Divine judgment by shifting the blame was to no avail. "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the earth!" God answered, and punished Cain by sending him into exile.

It's Not Just Cain -- It's Us Too

That student at Kent University is not the only one who has something in common with Cain. All of us have a hard time accepting blame. Have you ever noticed how even when you do admit something, you are more inclined to say, "Yes, you were right," than "Yes, I was wrong"? Even when accepting the blame we are subtly shifting it, if not onto others, at least away from ourselves.

Why do we find it so hard to accept blame and responsibility? In most cases, the answer lies in the distorted self-image that most of us suffer from. It's as if we carry about in our heads a funhouse mirror that makes us appear either bigger or smaller, more perfect or more imperfect, than we actually are. The reflection in the real mirror -- the way we appear to others, and their reactions -- poses a threat. The mental image of flawlessness is threatened by the pimples that show up in the real mirror; and for those who suffer from lack of self-esteem, any external criticism threatens to confirm the worst fears about monstrous flaws they imagine about themselves.

What to do about it? The Sages of the Talmud offer some surprising advice: "If somebody calls you a donkey, put a saddle on your back." What they mean is that when you hear criticism, even when you feel it is unjustified, accept it, at least outwardly. First of all, it is the surest way to defuse an argument. (You'll have to judge for yourself whether the criticism warrants serious self-examination. And we are not speaking here of submitting to exploitation or abuse, a different matter altogether.) But it works on a deeper level, as well.

I remember once getting angry at a friend of mine for some offense or other (by now, I've forgotten what it was, which is usually the case). When I confronted him, his response was: "Yeah, I'm sorry. Sometimes I just act like a jerk." It was totally disarming. I had anticipated denial, a fight, and when I didn't get one, there was nothing to do but accept his apology and go on being friends.

What's more, my perception of him as a decent, intelligent person did not change. His ready admission of being in the wrong did nothing to diminish him in my eyes; on the contrary, I respected him all the more for it. Our fears that we will lose the respect of others by admitting our mistakes is usually unfounded. And when we realize that those dread repercussions did not come about, we are naturally more willing to look in the mirror and consider what is really there, and fix what needs fixing.

It's true in the macrocosm, as well. The criminal charges that Martha Stewart faced for insider trading is not because of insider trading, but because she allegedly lied to federal investigators about insider trading. Had she told the truth from the start, it is quite possible that the empress of design and decorating would not today be contemplating decorating the inside of a prison cell.

By contrast, when New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was accused of fabricating stories, instead of covering it up, the paper launched an internal investigation. When it turned out that he had indeed falsified dozens of reports, they published their findings -- on the front page of The Times. Blair was dismissed, and senior editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd took responsibility for the treachery of their subordinate, and resigned. As a result, however, the paper's reputation as a reliable source of news, and their own reputations as honest journalists were saved. Other news organizations, which closely followed the crisis at The Times, review their own reporters with increased vigilance.

Cain was certainly right about one thing: his assertion that God created human beings with an innate capacity for evil; for jealousy and violence, cheating and shifting the blame. We see confirmation of that in the scandals and outrages that fill the news, as well as the private wrongs that we perpetrate in our own lives.

What Cain failed to realize, however, is that therein lies the essential challenge of life. For God also created man with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and choose the right. It may not be the easy way; but it is really the only way.

No matter how much we have sinned, we remain the objects of God's love.

The days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur are known as The Ten Days of Repentance. The preceding month of Elul is a time traditionally set aside to prepare for this period. At first glance, taking 30 days to get ready to say that we're sorry for our sins might seem a bit extreme. But in light of the deep-seated tendency to shift the blame away from ourselves, we can understand the wisdom of it. It takes a lot of throat-clearing before we can bring ourselves to say, "I have sinned."

How, specifically, can we take advantage of the month of Elul? The first step is not to begin making a list of everything you have done wrong during the past year. That way may lead to depression rather than repentance. In Hebrew, the letters E-L-U-L stand for ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I am unto my Beloved and He is unto me. This means that God and the Jewish people exist in a relationship of mutual love. And that love is eternal, spanning the ages.

No matter how much we have sinned, we remain the objects of God's love. Therefore, there is no need to shift the blame for fear of rejection. On the contrary, God only wants us to face up to our wrongdoing in order to become better people, even more worthy of His love.

After those thoughts have begun to sink in, we can actually begin to reflect on what we would rather not have done or said during the course of the year. But it is advisable to keep the list short. For if our repentance is to be credible, we have to stand a realistic chance of making good on our promises to do better next year. The shorter the list, the more the odds are in our favor.

Furthermore, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, one of the great Torah sages of modern times, advised that we should focus not on the hardest problems, but on the things that are most easily rectified -- for we are most responsible for that which is well within our ability to change. Furthermore, our chances of actually succeeding are greatest in those areas.

If we take this approach, we may discover that the greatness of these days is in ourselves -- that we are good enough and big enough to take the blame.

Sources: The Michaelson Institute; Midrash Tanchuma, Bereishis 9, 7; Sarah Lyall, "Britain's Stiff Upper Lip is Being Twisted Into a Snarl," New York Times, July 13, 2004; Talmud Bava Kamma 92b.