Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cain and Abel and the Boston Brothers

As I contemplated the events of the week this morning, I found my mind going to strange places.

First of all I kept seeing the face of the younger brother lying in some hospital bed in Boston. He has the face of "an angel," according to so many accounts by former friends and acquaintances, school chums and some of his family members. Or it's the face of a demonic fiend, a ruthless criminal, according to authorities and so many news reports and quotes from the deeply traumatized people of Boston.

And yet, on this Sunday morning, I realize that I am not thinking of this young man with hatred. I keep going to that hospital bed and seeing what amounts to a lost soul, a person, yes, who committed one of the worst atrocities our nation has known, but at the same time, a person who may have been unduly influenced by an even bigger lost soul, his older brother.

Perhaps I am finding myself in this ambiguous place because those first grainy video photos of him shocked me because for a couple of moments the young man vaguely reminded me of my own 23-year old son. Both young men are dark, handsome, tall. That connection evaporated quickly and like so many millions of others this week, I hated the younger brother to his core. I wanted more than anything in the world -- and perhaps more than for any crime I've ever heard about -- that the two men would be caught quickly and brought to the full weight of justice. My own daughter and son-in-law were in lockdown all day Friday in their new home on Beacon Street, days after  witnessing the runners go past their front door.

But this morning I am finding it harder to hate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. My mind oddly enough crawls toward the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and thanks in part to John Steinbeck -- and his novel, East of Eden -- to the story of Cain and Abel. East of Eden, the title, is taken directly from the Bible. Indeed at one point Steinbeck suggested to his publisher that the book should be entitled Cain Sign.

Steinbeck wrote an accompanying book to East of Eden, called Journal of a Novel: East of Eden, which documents his thoughts as he wrote the novel.  Steinbeck's editor and long-time friend, Pat Covici, told Steinbeck that he wanted him to deliver the manuscript in a box, so Steinbeck went to great lengths to construct a mahogany box. On top of the box he engraved four Hebrew letters, which spell out the Hebrew word, "timshol," literally translated as "thou mayest," suggesting Steinbeck's core belief that human beings, endowed with free will after the fall from the Garden of Eden, are continually faced with moral responsibility in the form of choice between good and evil.

Indeed, as Terry R. Wright notes in his 2007 book Genesis of Fiction, the notion of choice "might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a [wo]man. For if 'Thou mayest' -- it is also true that 'Thou Mayest Not.'" 

What has all this got to do with the Boston bomber?

Everything. Unequivocally, the bombers chose wickedly evil. But that leaves us asking how should we should choose to respond (aside from the full weight of criminal prosecution.)  We leave it to police authorities and the courts to mete out his punishment, but how do we talk about him, how do we feel, what should we think?

I was drawn today to open the Torah, to reread Chapter Four, Verse Ten, the passage that lays out God's punishment of Cain for slaying his brother Abel.

"Then He [God] said, 'What have you done? Hark, your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand." God curses Cain to "become a ceaseless wanderer on earth."

Cain replies "My punishment is too great to bear! Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth -- anyone who meets me may kill me!"

It is the Lord's reply to Cain that perhaps is most instructive: "The Lord said to him 'I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.' And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him. Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden."

It is this notion that the world's first murderer, Cain, is marked, and in being marked, he is forever a lesson to us in the ultimate choice between good and evil. As one commentary notes, "his mark is not a curse, but a protective sign of God's enduring care.

Amidst our desire to punish him, and our curiosity about how this boy went so bad, there ought to be some thought that we should refrain from "killing" the bomber with each one of our thoughts. Rather the Bible's instruction would seem to be that we should just be reminded once again of what Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, that "We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly re-spawn, while good, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is."

Instead of hating the bomber, it's better that we focus our "lovingkindness" (a Buddhist concept of loving all living beings) on the many suffering families, the myriad heroes who came to the aid of bombing victims on the scene, and the authorities who waged an extraordinary search to catch the bombers before they could wreak any more destruction. 

Rather than hating the bomber, it seems better to me that we should love the lesson about choice that he so painfully teaches.

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