Killing Your Darlings

It is Shabbat in New York City. I'm about to go out and scare up a shul. It's my father's yortzeit and though I could say Kaddish alone, our age-old custom is to do it in community instead. And over the years, with my travel schedule, it's given me an annual chance to wander into Jewish communities I never would've visited otherwise.

So I began googling Jewish communities near where I'm staying. And I stumbled onto the Sim Shalom Universalist Chavurah. For someone who plays as fast and loose with our tradition as I do, I am remarkably suspicious of other Jews' innovations. Are they crypto-Christians? Stealth Messianics? I guess that flavor of suspicion itself is rather Jewish, as we struggle to withstand the arrival of the next new thing, as we've survived Christianity, Islam, Sabbateanism, Franckism, the Enlightenment, Chasidism, Reform Judaism, and every other new idea that we now see as an innovation or a deviation, depending on the outcome.

One of the primary notions of the Sim Shalom folks, not unlike Mordecai Kaplan's framing of Reconstructionism, is the rejection of the idea of "chosen-ness." There are many paths to enlightenment and, using the language on Sim Shalom's website, "We reject the concept of a God that would choose a favorite child."

It was a funny statement to stumble on during this Shabbat Breishit where, among so many other things, we read the story of Kayin and Hevel - Cain and Abel. This story, in which God accepts the offering of the younger but not the older, is one of our many narratives that dwell in the anxiety about the seemingly unfair affection and attraction felt for the next new thing. We see it again and again: Isaac becomes Abraham's principal heir over Ishmael. Jacob swipes the birthright and the blessing from Esau. Rachel is the beloved over her sister Leah. Although Torah doesn't explore this dimension of it, it's worth noting that Moses himself is little brother to both Miriam and Aaron. Even King David, though not a set up as a sibling, is still posed as the young and more attractive alternative to King Saul. David is the upstart whose charmed and charming ascendancy drives the failing leader mad.

Torah over and over presents versions of this, of the younger being justified in taking what should belong to the older. Why such anxiety? Were we, as newcomers to the Promised Land, as builders of a kingdom not on empty soil but on the turf of an older resident civilization, insecure about our position? Is Torah's message that the new supplanting the old is the order of things? In Greek mythology the younger gods defeat the older gods; children supplant their parents, suggesting that change happens in a generational way. The Torah version, invoking our innate sibling rivalry, is subtler and trickier. It involves the painful conflict of ideas that are more or less contemporaneous.

In his mind-bending book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn paints the Cain-Abel conflict as an allegory representing the defeat of the old nomadic lifestyle, represented by Abel the shepherd of sheep, by the newer, settlement-based agrarian culture, represented by Cain. The murder of Abel by Cain exemplifies the agrarian revolution of about 10,000 years ago. Interestingly, in this reading of the myth, the newer idea - agrarianism - is embodied in the older sibling, and the older hunter-gatherer-herdsman lifestyle is embodied in the younger.

Of course what's always challenging and reassuring about Torah is that it doesn't lend itself to easy allegorical readings. Is Abel a new idea or an old idea? Is Abel the loss of the past or anxiety about the present and future? Or is this story not about ideas at all? Maybe it's about competition between tribes or nations. Or maybe this tale of sibling rivalry is just about sibling rivalry. After all, the murderous rage that many children feel at the arrival of the darling interloper is a deep current in many lives. It informs personalities and outlooks from cradle to grave.

I myself am a younger child. So are, when I think about it, most of my friends. How much of my general optimism comes from never having been challenged by a darling newcomer? And how much of that optimism would look to anyone else like plain old naivete?

Was Abel naive? When God accepted his offering but not Cain's, did he not see what was coming next? The outcome, though not foreseeable to the character, was utterly foreseeable to the narrative itself. Abel is named Hevel, the word that comes up over and over in Ecclesiastes, which we read last week over Sukkot before Simchat Torah boomeranged us back to the Beginning. It means breath. Vanity. Fleetingness. Impermanence. Unlike for his brother in the preceding verse, Torah gives no explanation as to how Hevel got this name. Almost as if it was less a name than an attribute. He was, in fact, impermanent. It could not have been his parents. After all, who would name their kid Temp?

Maybe Torah instead is saying something about our individual, internal struggles. We have competing needs, ideas. Sometimes the more attractive idea has to go. As the advice to writers goes, "Kill your darlings." But when you do, it is okay to mourn, and the idea that survives must be held accountable. When it asks, "Am I my brother's keeper," the answer - in the world of ideas as much as the world of action - should be a resounding "yes."

Or maybe this story of the first crime of passion is not meant to teach anything other than impermanence itself, its tone less akin to the mythology of Genesis than to the fatalism of Ecclesiastes. Maybe Kohelet, Ecclesiastes' author, uses this term - hevel - over and over in order to send us right back to this core narrative about unpredictability and impermanence. We grow, we tend, we offer up. Sometimes the world accepts our offerings. Sometimes it doesn't and we don't know why. Sometimes we are punished for our success. Sometimes we punish ourselves. It is all hevel. Yet we have no choice but to keep growing, keep tending and keep offering up.

This sentiment is beautifully captured in an unattributed poem that became a song by Maggy and Suzzy Roche:

People are often unreasonable, illogical,
and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, People may accuse you
of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some
false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone
could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.