Beach reading is one of my greatest pleasures. I especially enjoy it when the whole family is immersed in a book and our little corner on the beach becomes something like the “quiet car” on Amtrack! This summer my son Gabe was reading the great American classic, East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I have to confess that I, myself, never read the book but the movie – loosely based on the book and starring James Dean, made a huge impression on me. When Gabe turned to the last page of the book–the quiet we had been enjoying was suddenly broken by a single word: timshsel. He was reading out loud the word – supposedly in Hebrew, which holds within it the meaning and mystery of this famous novel.

But the thing is this: the word timshel doesn’t exist. Steinbeck thought he was quoting straight from the Hebrew text, from the story of Cain and Abel but he misread the word. The Hebrew word in Torah is timshol not timshel. It’s too late now to change the text of this classic novel, or the websites that have sprung up using this non-existent Hebrew word. But that doesn’t really matter – unless, of course you are a linguist.

What matters is that the book and the websites keep alive a conversation that affects us all; a conversation that is at the heart of what today is all about. Timshol – which translates as “you shall rule” speaks to our ability to rule our lives, to make choices and master whatever forces conspire to take us down the wrong path. This word is what makes teshuva possible; it tells us that we can choose our own path and do better next year. Without free will, what’s the point of reflecting on our lives if we don’t actually have a choice about how we move forward?

The word timshol appears in Torah in the context of the offerings that Cain and Abel bring to God. As you might remember from the story, one day Cain brings an offering from the fruit of the soil and Abel brings the choicest from the flock as his sacrifice. But what happens is quite mysterious: God accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s. Cain is distressed; his face falls –which probably means that he is visibly upset. God says to him, and here I quote from the Torah:

“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely if you do right, there is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you
Yet you can be its master. V’atah timshol bo.

What happens next, as we know, is not pretty. It’s the first murder in Torah. But I want to fast forward hundreds of years and take us to the scene in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Lee, the housekeeper, is discussing the story of Cain And Abel and its biblical translations with the protagonist. He wants Cal – who in the novel represents the biblical Cain to realize that he has the power to overcome his family’s legacy of evil. The passage I’m referring to reads as follows:

“Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin….The King James Translation makes a promise in “thou shalt” meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But it’s the Hebrew word, the word timshelthou mayest that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if “thou mayest” – it is also true that “thou mayest not.”

While timshol might be the most important word in the world, expressing the freedom we have to make choices, science has taught us that we aren’t completely a blank slate. We come into the world with a certain mental and physical make-up that does, to some extent, limit our choices. For example, I was reading about a recent study by research psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins that suggests that eating healthy isn’t just a matter of will power. Some people might actually be wired to want higher calorie foods. Apparently, their self-regulatory circuitry is less responsive as compared to others.

We have also learned a great deal about the chemical origins of depression and understand that we just can’t will ourselves to be happy. I remember some years ago, reading a famous story by the Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav. As a Hasid, Reb Nachman believed in the centrality of simcha – or joy as a spiritual path. However, throughout his life he struggled with depression. He wrote a passage called Join the Dance where he says:

Sometimes a group of people happily dancing together take hold of someone who is standing miserable and depressed on the outside. They pull him into the dance-circle despite himself, forcing him to rejoice with them. Similarly, when a person is happy, his pain and sadness may move to the sidelines. But a higher level is to pursue the sadness itself and “pull it into the dance circle,” turning it into joy. If you truly set your mind to it, there is always a way you can turn all your sadness into joy. Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav Likutey Moharan II, 23

Reb Nachman lived in the late 1700’s. Today, we know that it’s not so simple to will oneself to “enter the dance.” Even so, these days if you walk into any major bookstore you will find a self-help section that tries to convince us that we can will ourselves to be better, happier, richer, thinner, more beautiful, more popular, more powerful, more successful. We can be more! Wow! And as a reaction to the unforgiving demands of this dominant self-help narrative, there is also the “new age” response” that says: “we are enough.” We are good enough. We are doing the best we can. Everyone is doing the best they can. In fact, we are already perfect the way we are and. everything is already perfect the way it is. Just breathe……

Teshuva is rooted in an altogether different way of looking at ourselves. Teshuva is about recognizing that none of us is perfect but that we can always be moving towards the best version of ourselves. This recognition comes with a sense of compassion for where we stand, and humility for what we can achieve.

I’d like to return to the story of Cain and Abel and to the mystery that lies at the heart of this story and at the heart of life itself. Why did God accept Abel’s offering but reject Cain’s? It seems so arbitrary, so unfair. The rabbis of old try mightily to come up with a response that makes sense. But no explanation seems truly convincing. And I think that’s exactly the point of the story.

Sometimes in life we are sorely disappointed by circumstances beyond our control. We don’t understand why misfortune has come upon; we deeply feel the unfairness of it all.

Life can seem unfair when we, or loved ones, are living with illness. Sometimes this illness has come upon us despite our best efforts to do all the right things to care for our health. Sometimes this illness comes upon us without any warning and all of a sudden we find ourselves facing a very different reality.

Life must feel unfair for our brothers and sisters in Texas, Florida and throughout the Caribbean who have endured so much loss and devastation in the past weeks. The pictures of entire neighborhoods, entire islands destroyed by wind and water are heartbreaking.

We have been spared that suffering but almost five years ago a hurricane of sorts ripped through our city – killing three people and injuring several hundred. This April we will be marking the fifth anniversary of the Marathon bombing, an event that brings closer to home the ways in which life can feel unpredictable and unfair.

This past weekend I saw Stronger the recently released movie based on the memoir by Jeff Bauman one of the sixteen people who lost limbs on that fateful day. The movie shows us the raw psychological and physical pain that Jeff endured and the enormous effort it took, on his part, to want to move forward. There is a scene in the movie that depicts the encounter between Jeff and the man who helped save his life, Carlos Arredondo, who we all remember as the guy with the distinctive cowboy hat. Arredondo was at the finish line as a spectator cheering on a soldier who was running in honor of his two deceased sons.

Their encounter seems to have been a key turning point in Jeff’s ability to move forward. Arredondo opens up to Jeff about the loss of his sons- one who died in a tour of duty in Iraq and the other who committed suicide. He shares his pain, his struggle to confront this loss and how he has made meaning out of this suffering: as an activist for peace, as an activist for bringing awareness about depression, drug addiction and suicide. He shows Jeff, by example, that we have a choice as to how we respond to the suffering that life can bring.

The encounter between the two reminded me of the book by Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning he reflects on his experience in the camps and writes: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It is up to us to let go of anger and frustration and to make meaning out of our suffering. Even when it seems that life has been unfair, we have a choice in how we respond.

And so, as we enter the New Year let us remember this word – timshol – as a short hand for reminding ourselves that the ability to choose is in our hands. It is up to us to return to that place of goodness and wholeness that lies within each of us. It is up to us to imbue our lives with meaning. May we move forward with courage and hope, and may the coming year bring us many blessings.

G’mar hatimah tovah; May we be inscribed for a good year.