In 1990, I met new friends Yury and Svetlana who’d just come to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. I took them to the Toy Boat on Clement Street for ice cream. The choices of flavors staggered them. Over time, they learned to shop around. Still, retail choices aren’t always simple. Moral choices can be a nightmare.
B’reishit, the first portion of the Book of Genesis, offers two timeless stories concerning choice. In the first, God instructs Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. But the wily serpent convinces Eve to take a bite. She does and passes the fruit on to her husband who also indulges. Bad choices. Goodbye, Eden.
Next comes the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain becomes crestfallen. God offers Cain encouragement: “Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master.” Evil tempts us constantly, but we are not condemned to making bad choices. Regrettably, God’s advice falls on deaf ears. Apparently consumed by jealousy, Cain kills Abel. In punishment he must wander the earth.
Who among us is not without regrets? It is in our nature as human beings to make bad choices as well as good ones. According to the Sages of the Talmud, Adam and Eve bequeathed to humanity the yetzer tov (the good inclination) and the yetzer hara (the bad inclination). These often place us at war with ourselves. Nearly two thousand years later, Freud wrote about the conflict of the id, ego and superego. Both religious and civil law attempt to keep the yetzer hara in check.
John Steinbeck made the Cain and Abel story the core of his novel East of Eden (1952). The brothers Adam and Charles Trask share a love-hate relationship. Adam’s wife, Cathy Ames, represents pure evil. The serpent perhaps? Cathy’s sons Aron and Caleb—supposedly Adam’s, more likely Charles’—also possess conflicting personalities. Caleb loves Aron, but Aron is the beloved child. Ultimately, Caleb gets Aron to enlist in the Army during World War One. Aron is killed in Europe.
Steinbeck pursues the theme of choice throughout this long novel. At its conclusion, he repeats an earlier reference to the Cain and Abel story that uses the Hebrew word timshel, translated as “thou mayest.” Caleb is told that he can dominate or master his sinful urges. He does not have to wander the world; he can build a life.
The Torah offers structure for making moral choices. The Talmud delves deeper. Still, sound choices never come easy. Modern-day thinkers often present challenging responses to making geopolitical choices in a complex world. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, wrote in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) that some situations force us “to run risks in a situation which permits only a choice among evils.” We must not lose our principles, Kissinger states, but we cannot uphold them if we perish.
Today, Islamist violence in the Middle East and the plight of refugees along with poverty and gun violence at home confront us with difficult choices. I referenced Genesis, which begins the Bible. I’ll close with Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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