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When ‘Heroes’ Fall

(Preamble: This post was initially written for the participants of a class I teach at Matan on the problem of evil, following a class in which I brought Yehuda Meshi Zahav as an example of someone who grappled with suffering and responded through showing a higher level of empathy. Like everyone in the class, the shock of what emerged weeks later left myself and many others reeling. This is a version of what I wrote to the class participants on our WhatsApp group.)

Should we be surprised when heroes fall? After showcasing Meshi Zahav in my class on the problem of evil (as a response rather than an example) only a few weeks ago, I, together with many others, was naturally reeling from the news of his alleged actions. We will, of course, wait for the courts, judges and justice system to administer due process. In the meantime, we can agree that if the reports are true they amount to a solid case of perversion and assault, a manipulation of power and position. A once-supposed ‘hero’ or righteous figure has fallen, or maybe the hero never existed to begin with. When faced with this moment of cognitive dissonance we would do well to remind ourselves of the following facts:

NO ONE is infallible.

NO ONE is beyond corruption.

ANYONE can be led astray.

Some people are sick/ill/perverted.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Corruption uses power to get what it wants.

The strong will always prey on the weak.

Human beings are capable of extreme good and extreme evil.

Humans are complex beings who can create works of art/music/beauty of supreme depth whilst committing the most treacherous and horrifying acts known to man.

We are far more intricate than even the best psychologists can comprehend. That is our greatness and greatest downfall.

And with all this in mind, I want to address the feelings so many of us have felt in facing this story and others like it:


Cognitive dissonance


Doubt in humanity

Doubt in God

Doubt in our own judgement

So where to draw strength? What conclusions to procure?

To suggest a response (not an answer, for there is no answer) I turn to the first story of evil between men in the Bible – Cain and Abel – that acts as an archetypal frame for many other actions of man that follow.

Cain is the apple of his parents’ eyes, the product of a union between woman and God. He does everything right in the eyes of the Lord. He fulfils God’s command to work the land and he even, of his own initiative, brings the first sacrifice of thanks. He is the ultimate God-fearing man, and though the commentators try to paint a picture of possible iniquities (which resulted in his sacrifice being rejected), from a simple reading of the text, Cain is nothing but a good, God-serving citizen.

And yet his sacrifice is not accepted by God. Why? We are not told why.

His reaction: Anger, anguish, incomprehension, confusion. Understandable – absolutely.

When the ‘ought’ (how we believe reality should be) and the ‘is’ (how reality actually plays out) do not correspond, sentiments of unfairness, anger, confusion, dissonance and blame arise.

The result: a moment of sheer madness, an explosion of human fallibility, a perpetration of radical evil. Murder is in the air, and even when warned by God, even when aware of the danger inherent in the feelings he harbours, he cannot control himself. The first murder occurs and with it the corollaries of shame, guilt, punishment, further violence, perversity, power and corruption…the prelude to the story of human survival and frailty.

Scripture has its silences and its ambiguities, and they are there for a reason. We are not told why God rejects Cain’s sacrifice because it is totally superfluous to the moral message of the narrative. There is no excuse for this murder or any other. No sentiment of injustice, or betrayal, or desire for Divine/human love or favour is enough to justify murder. From Cain and Abel we learn that humans will murder, they will act out of any one of the multifarious human emotions and motives, they will commit crimes against brothers, sisters, strangers and friends. This is part of the human story.

But the Bible does not end with this picture of pessimism; in framing the danger it offers an opening for optimism.

Let’s notice God’s words to Abel both before and after the murder:

God asks Cain after he has hidden his dead brother in the sand: Where is Abel your brother? Abel – Hevel – nothingness – the chasm within that, more often than not, propels us towards acting out – Where is that? Can we face nothingness – the dissonances in living, the feelings of human fallibility, the moments we expose our true selves by taking responsibility for the other rather than spiraling into a violent abyss.

The Torah tells us that human beings are created good. We are not born with a ‘mark of Cain’; we can, however, create it. We are the ones who choose good or evil. The choice is there. Always. As God says to Cain before he murders:

“Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen? If you make good, you shall be lifted and if you do not make good, sin will crouch at your door and you will desire it: only you have the ability to rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6)

The message cannot be more explicit: Sin will always crouch at our door, we will be drawn to it. This is once again part of being mortal, fallible, human. Humans will never have full knowledge of the Divine scheme, nor will they understand or comprehend everything about the world and about the human race. That does not and should not preclude striving towards ever greater knowledge to develop, grow and elevate our existence. However, when faced with the problem of evil, with human suffering and human malaise the only thing we can know and the only mandate born in a story of violence is: Be your brother’s keeper. Rule over yourself, be a master of your desires. Rein in your extant aggressiveness, anger, shame. Bring the perpetrators to justice and punish them. Wipe your brother’s/sister’s tears, heal their wounds and listen to their voice calling from the ground. That’s it. That’s all folks. I can’t give you more than that because that’s what God gives us. And it’s enough. It’s enough to know that we are all fallible. It’s enough to know we must take responsibility. It’s enough because if we all do it, if we all follow these simple guidelines, it will indeed be enough for good to reign once again and for the dissonance to disappear.

Hannah Arendt wrote from the trial of Eichmann about the ‘banality of evil’ – what she meant is that there was nothing inherently evil about Eichmann – he was an ordinary, loving, family-oriented man who followed immoral (though legal) instructions. She shocked many and received much criticism. The evil perpetrated in the Holocaust was not to be understood in ordinary terms, her critics argued; the Nazis were monsters, the devil, beyond human comprehension. But she argued instead that they were ordinary people who had committed extraordinarily evil acts. Both sides are right. No human being is born evil. Every human being has the potential for evil – for radical ‘out of this world’ evil. And equally every human being has the potential to overcome evil. Every human being has the potential for radical good. The choice is ours. And when we are faced with an instance of someone who we perceived to be the paragon of good turning out in the end to be the paradigm of evil, we will naturally be shaken to the core and reel in the dissonance and disbelief. But instead of ruminating on the dissonance, we would do better to ask ourselves: In what way can I be my brother’s keeper? How can I ensure this doesn’t happen again? How can I bring justice to the victims? How can I alleviate another person’s pain? How can I educate against sexual predators? How can I ensure that power is regulated and hierarchy curtailed?

The Bible is not a book of saints, nor is it a book of perfect heroes. It is a book of good and evil and everything in between and its overriding message is: In all our human complexity and uncertainty it is our role to take absolute responsibility for the other. To me that is the supreme message from this story and every other like it. Be the warning before the incident, create the mechanism to prevent perpetrators perpetrating if you can. Educate towards self-control, ethical behaviour and morality. But when that fails, (and it will) when our brother’s blood cries from the ground, it is not our job at that moment to ask why Cain killed Abel – it is our job at that moment to wipe away the blood, dignify the victim and seek justice. Our response to Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” should be a resounding “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper and I will do everything to uncover his face from the dirt of the ground and seek in him/her the Divine spark that was extinguished.”

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