What Will It Take?

What will it take?

What will it take to end the curse of Cain? Ever since one brother killed the other at the dawn of time, the history of the world has been sown thick with hatred, murder and destruction. In spite of the human instinct for doing good, for building and creating, the dark side of human nature has dominated in a world wracked with war and suffering.

What will it take for the despair and horror to cause a change in understanding and behaviour, so that cruelty and violence finally end?

What will it take for countries to come together, as they have in the European Union, to work cooperatively towards common goals and mutual respect? This was an exceptional and promising historical event.And yet, even there, after a thousand years of war, and finally peace and prosperity, there looms a haunting presence of the old hatred and distrust. Anti-Semitism, racism and nationalism are re-emerging as fascist political parties gain strength.

What will it take for people to truly accept the Bible’s commandments, that were intended to transform the world? — love your fellow as yourself, be kind to the stranger, pursue justice, care for the poor. And yet, the carnage continues, the hatred and distrust.

What will it take for the yetzer tov (the inclination towards good in everyone) to dominate the yetzer hara (the inclination towards evil — also, sadly, in every person)? We see evidence of impressive acts of selflessness and generosity everywhere. Anytime there is a crisis, a natural disaster, innumerable people rally to comfort, support and assist the stricken. It is as if the human spirit strives for good but fails on a collective level to establish the good for everyone in society.

When will “Why should I help them?” be replaced by “How can I help them?” How can the principle of “Live and let live” become accepted as fundamental to any decent society instead of the will to power and domination?

The Biblical precept that we see the trace of God  in the face of the stranger would lead to peace in the world and within ourselves. The principle in the abstract is lofty, majestic, divine; in practice, it seems too difficult to implement.

What will it take? It will take good people in very large numbers everywhere in the world to say to themselves, to their fellow citizens and to their leaders, that the time has come for an end to pettiness, grudges and ancient hatreds.

The Enlightenment did not result in the desired reign of reason. Sophisticated, educated, modern society has not brought about the universal acceptance of human dignity and human rights for all. The words were impressive but the actions were not, because ideals alone are not enough to achieve profound change in action and behaviour.

There is a story in the Talmud that recounts a debate between the House of Hillel, who argued that it was good that humanity was created, and the House of Shammai, who disagreed. After years of discussion, they finally agreed that it would have been better if humanity had not been created. However, the Talmud concludes that, since man has been created, it would be best if he searched his deeds.

What does it mean to search one’s deeds? Ideals are not good enough, as we have seen,  so the Talmudic sages created a network of laws — halachah — to encourage deeds that were imbued with moral values and codes of behaviour of the highest order. That response is a uniquely Jewish one, which may or may not work, depending on one’s following the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But it does not help a world sorely in need of empathy and kindness.

Steeped in the Biblical tradition, Martin Luther King Jr. believed fervently that man could, indeed, search his deeds, behave better and create a new world. He wrote that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”. We await the light and the love.

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo

About the Author
Paul Socken was on the faculty of the University of Waterloo (Canada) for 37 years where he chaired the Department of French Studies and established the Jewish Studies programme.
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