Monday, March 16, 2009


Timshel is a Hebrew word, interpreted variously as "Thou shalt" (a promise of success), "Do thou (an order) and "Thou mayest" (an indication of freewill). As noted at Oprah's book club, the interpretation of the word is at the heart of John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Does the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis promise us that we, the children of Cain, will one day triumph over sin (predestination)? Does it order us to triumph over sin (unquestioning obedience)? Or, as the Chinese servant Lee notes in the book, does it "throw it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’"

'Thou mayest' is freeing-- and frightening. We have choices in determining our own destiny. What happens isn't predestined, nor does "just following orders" suffice. It calls for personal responsibility (another theme in East of Eden). It is not easy, but it does mean we should never despair completely-- there is always a choice. Sometimes none of the choices may be very appealing, but at least it is ours to make.

Heavy stuff for a Monday morning. But good stuff-- much, much food for thought. East of Eden has its flaws-- the two-dimensional nature of many of the main characters, the borderline misogyny, the sometimes stilted diaglouge-- but the descriptive power of Steinbeck's narrative, and the breath, poignancy and power of his story far outweigh the shortcomings.

Timshel, my friends. Timshel.

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