Where are you ? Growing Up!
Many years ago, longer than I care to count, I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and I had an Israeli room-mate. He is now a professor of American literature at Tel Aviv University, but then, he was just starting his academic studies in that field. He had a very great command of written English but wanted to work on his spoken English. His problem was that when he tried to speak to me in English, I would answer in Hebrew, because I wanted to work on my command of the language.
One day he asked me a question about a book by the great novelist of California, John Steinbeck. He was stumped for the meaning of a word that he could not find in any English dictionary.
Here is the quote, about the last dying words of the family patriarch, Adam.
No dictionary had that word.
Of course, I took one look at it and told him, “Sure, it's Hebrew for" He will rule over it." ”
Luckily, I had read the book and knew that the protagonists were modernized versions of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel. What my roommate had to discover was that this entire American classic was a paraphrase of the story of Adam & Eve and Cain and Abel. Hence , the name, East of Eden, since that is the land of exile of Adam and Eve and their ill-fated sons. I will get back to this shortly.
I return to our theme, which I have used as a refrain through this year’s High Holy Day services, ”Where are you? “. This is the first question of all history, asked when the first human being has failed a simple order, not to taste of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. We understand that in seeking that fruit which was good to the eye and the taste, there lay within it, the taste of evil. This first question of conscious existence results in the first reply of all human beings, actually two replies. The first response is shame and hiding. Lay low, don’t get caught. The second response is to pass the buck. Adam blames God for giving him Eve, Adam blames Eve for giving him the fruit, Eve blames the snake, who has no one left in the Garden to pass the blame on to. Therein, we have the foundations of ‘civilization and its discontents’.
One would hope that the next generation had learned from the parents. But it is the same story
Cain had been passed over—“minchato lo sha-ah”-- God favored Abel’s offering over Cain’s, even though he offered it first. It’s just that Abel’s offering was better. It is all too human to resent the better, even though, or perhaps even more so, when the better is one’s own kin, one’s own brother. Cain is downcast, he is the eternal sore loser. We know what he does to his brother. If God’s question to Adam is” Ayekah” Where are you? his question to Cain is “ “Ay Hevel Achichah”, Where is Abel, your brother?. Same question,” Where is?”
At least Adam’s answer was “ I was afraid,”; at least he recognized a failing. But Cain completely shrugs off responsibility—outright chutzpah- I don’t know- “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
We understand that he really means- You, God, you failed, you were supposed to be his keeper, You passed me over, you made me angry, you are at fault!
Here is the human condition in bold face. I am never responsible for what I do. I am never responsible for what happens to me.
Now, back to Steinbeck. Here is the great twist in Steinbeck's novel. The Bible’s Cain is a miserable murderer, while the Cain of Steinbeck's novel understands the very point that the Bible’s Cain failed to grasp:
“And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? ,”Surely, if you do right, There is uplift, the is redemption, good. But if you do not do right, Sin crouches at the door; - that is , sin is seen as a beast of prey, like a lion, ready to pounce. Its urge is toward you—it wants you. It desires you, “v’tmshel bo”, Yet you can be its master.”
The very last line has the key word that runs through the Steinbeck book: “Timshel”. Adam tells his wayward son that he still has the possibility of choice. That is his great blessing. Cain didn’t get the point, but Steinbeck’s protagonist did. Steinbeck was positing what for us, as Jews, is a basic tenet.
We have the ability to make choices in life. ‘U bachartah bechayim”, You can choose life, “ That is stated explicitly in the Book of Deuteronomy. In Steinbeck’s novel, the protagonist, of Irish ancestry, must go to Chinese immigrants who have gone to, of course, to a Jew, to a Rabbi, to learn what the message conveys.
This idea that we can choose, that we can take control of our lives, is something that, as Jews, we assume to be taken for granted. Yet, it is many ways a radical concept, an innovation in the scope of human history.
The more common narrative has been: fate. You recall the descriptive Greek myth of the three Fates who weave the cloth of life and determine one’s end. It was said that they controlled even the fates of the Greek gods. Even the gods are doomed. The popular notion of Karma, adopted from Hindu thought, speaks of a causality of previous incarnations.
Even we as Jews, aren’t fully free from it. We speak of “gilgul neshamot”- a reincarnation of souls from one generation to the next, so that what happens now is a payback for what happened generations back.
Or even God-himself-herself-seems to make that point.
When we read the 13 attributes of God, we are reading from God’s promise to Moses of forgiveness. However, our version, which we chant repeatedly during the service, is not the version Moses recorded!
The original states,“ Nakeh lo yenakeh, poked avon avot al banim al shleshim v al reveim.”
“He will not acquit the guilty, but will visit the sins of the father’s upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation.” Oh, Oh- This sounds like Fate, this sounds like Karma. If I am miserable, it is my grandfather’s fault. Blame him, not me.
So where is that freedom of choice? The prophets preach the theme continually that just because it is destined doesn’t mean it will if the people change their course. Ezekiel spelled it out “ Just because the fathers ate sour grapes, the children don’t have to pucker their lips.” So when our sages edited our service, they recognized that periods and commas and vowels don’t exist in the Torah text, and they simply put a period in the middle of the sentence:
“ Nakeh!”- I will acquit! Period, end of sentence. The Rabbis have now emphasized that God is unlocking the door for us, if we will just grab the door-knob of life. That is now engrained in the core of Jewish thinking.
But this idea has been roundly attacked, throughout the ages, and even more so in our day.
Just last month, a leading journal, The Atlantic, published an essay by Steven Cave ( Atlantic Monthly, June 2016) titled “ There’s no such thing as free will- but we’re better off believing in it anyway.”
“ The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable.”
He goes on to say that we need the illusion, nevertheless. It’s not a new thought - one of the great thinkers of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin of Switzerland, 500 years ago, posited that we cannot determine if we are damned or saved—only God will make that decision. However, we had better behave like we are the saved. Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea- the Swiss became excellent at making cheese, chocolate and watches and holding our money!
But it’s not our idea.
When I lived in Israel, back in the 80’s, I organized a lecture for one of Israel’s prominent philosophers, Yeshayahu Lebowitz. He put the difference between a human and a rock in this stark example. If put a rock on a ledge, balance it just off center, it must fall. Must! A law of physics. It must fall.
Put a human on the ledge, at the same angle. We really don’t know if that human will fall. That human might make a decision, a choice, to move back. The rock can’t.
Every modern ideology has tried to lock us in the role of the rock on the cliff. That is at the core of Nazism and of Communism. This is what I learned from my father, who experienced both world views from the inside, from Nazi prison and Soviet exile. This is what he wrote, in 1937, a year after spending time in a Nazi prison in Berlin:
“It has been an accepted thesis for decades within all trends of our culture that all events occur independently of human will. Little and rarely does anything result from conscious thought.”
In the avant garde world view of his day , we are all seen as the products of our class, we are the products of our genetics ( then it was called race), or we are the products of our infantile conflicts. We, ourselves, are nowhere in this equation.
He summarized in his essay:
“Indeed, the trap of fatalism is so tightly wound that it leaves absolutely no room for action on the part of human will and consciousness.”
A year and a half later, he was again in a Nazi prison and shortly afterwards, in exile in the worker’s paradise of Stalin.
World War II and the Cold War were both waged to deny the legitimacy to either world view.
Pitiably, this view has crept back into our society. It has crept in to higher academia and the universities, where I read of administrations encouraging the splintering off of ethnic groups as if they must be incompatible. Professors must issue “ trigger –warnings” and universities must create “ safe zones” where thoughts can be walled off and students segmented. For their own good! For their own safety! College counselors confess that they have never had so many students seeking emotional help because, in some way or other, they felt themselves damaged by something that was said by a classmate or an instructor.
I don’t understand. My father had communist professors and he had fascist professors in Vienna of his day. There were no trigger warnings. He had to listen to both sides, because the presumption was that he was old enough to deal with it.
All this goes back to this assumption that we are dictated in our thoughts and in our actions because we belong to one gender, or we belong to one economic class, or we belong to one artificial racial category. That was how Jim Crow worked and that has now been taken over by the people who are supposed to shape and educate a leadership that is supposed to be blind to all of this. It is well-documented, for example, that in what should be the color-blind institution of higher education, Asian-Americans are systematically discriminated against in admissions. It used to be Jews-now it is Asian-Americans.
I apologize that I digress off to the world of college, but it is that world which is shaping our future thought leaders.
It is time to take back our sense of personal control, of command of our lives. Any of you remember the old IBM punch cards. Do you remember that they said,” Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.” It became a slogan for rejecting to be hole-punched and categorized. So, to take that metaphor, we need to reassert ourselves in our lives, our personal dignity. We are responsible for what we do and we are not cogs in a machine nor some arbitrary mix of DNA and bacteria.
I want to take my thoughts back to my beginning and the original version behind to Steinbeck’s East of Eden
Our Rabbis question why the brothers fight. The basis for Cain’s attack is intentionally left blank. In other words, when you read the Hebrew, you see that something has been erased. What was erased? The Rabbis said, “ Why do men fight?”- Over honor, over possessions, and over a woman-- yes in their case, over their own mother, Eve. They were Freudian before Freud. They then go on, though,” Does it matter, really, who is the better of the two? Does it matter if one was less righteous than the other? Does it matter that Abel provoked Cain. No. Cain did what was wrong and the mitigating factors are irrelevant. Responsibility is responsibility.
We conclude though, with a saving thought—whether either Cain or Abel was righteous or villainous is irrelevant to us, as human beings. You see, neither Cain nor Abel, we are told, have any living descendants. We, all humans, are the descendants of the third son, born to the first pair of humans, Seth. Yes, we are given the message: we are not fated to be either the pitiable Abel or the merciless Cain. We have a third option for us, the door is open, the way is open. “ Timshel Bo”- You can do it. You have the ability to control your passions ,your urges, your drives. You can drive life, instead of being driven by it. That is the message of Judaism and that is the message of this season. May we choose wisely, and, as Moses said,” Choose Life” this year and every year, Amen.