We couldn’t help it. We didn’t have a choice in the matter. Even if our upbringing had been different, even if our environment reinforced a different way, even if our genes had relented, still the emotional intensity of the moment made our course of action feel inevitable. Is it possible to quiet a craving? Can desire be dislodged?
Hiding in the folds of the Torah’s earliest stories is a lesson that conveys, ‘it is possible to say no in the name of a deeper yes.’
Curiously, in the chapters we learn this Shabbat, God speaks more poignantly with Cain and his mother Eve than God does with Abel and his father Adam. Just prior to Cain’s decision to murder Abel, God seems surprised (Gen. 4:6) by how distressed Cain has become over the inattention his offering gets in comparison with the attention granted to Abel’s. “Sin is crouching at the door,” God counsels Cain, “it’s urge (t’shukato) can seem irrepressible, but you can subdue it (timshol bo) (Gen. 4:7). Remarkably, God’s reproof of Eve concludes utilizing the same words, “your urge (t’shukateih) shall be for your husband, and he shall subdue you (yimshol bah)” (Gen. 3:16). Why the same words in both cases? Because both surround free choice decisions – electing to eat from a tree’s fruit and determining to murder a brother. Both times the Torah’s message is clear: the passionate urge is most muscular, but, encourages God, you possess the inner strength is make it yield.
In the heat of anger, fear, or passion, getting your head to subdue your heart is almost impossible. Almost. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the breath of God lying deeper than ‘the stratum of the will’ that abides in all human beings, he asserts that when it is stirred, when it is awakened into an aspiration, it has the force to run counter to all winds. Heschel concludes, “If the devil offered us all the wealth of his house as a price for betraying it, he would be laughed aside.”
Profiles in fortitude abound. Such stories (meshalim) remind us that the breath of God within us is both fragile and hearty (timshol). Consider the extraordinary story of the son of the spiritual Founder of Hamas who became an secret operative for the Israeli Intelligence service. Having become so morally horrified by the deterioration of the religious movement his father helped to build around his breakfast table, he severed ties with his parents and his siblings, with everything and everyone he held dear, to do what he came to believe was right. His Israeli ‘handler’ too would come to share a trusting bond so strong that when his comrade was at the brink of collapse he would break with Agency protocol and lose his job in order to save him.
The abiding promise of agency is more durable than the ephemeral pledge of allegiance.
Conscience is a good brake but a less helpful guide. Heschel suggests that It raises its voice too late, after a wrong has been committed. This year may we reread our Bible’s first stories inspired to keep company with our souls, furnished by God to ever keep us responsibly free.