Cain, Colorado and the Divided Human Heart

07/23/2012 01:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

The human journey begins in murder. One step out of Eden, in the Torah's recounting, Cain kills Abel. Right away, we are taught, the blameless Abel and the homicidal Cain are both part of who we are. So it has been ever since.

Don't call the alleged Aurora murderer a monster. Do not separate him from the human family. It is too easy, too self-satisfying, to simply condemn him and be done with it. The fault line between good and evil does not run between human beings, with the virtuous on one side and the malefactors on the other. It runs in each human heart, and each of us must make choices again and again.

It is shocking how often we are shocked. We are shocked when bankers cheat, when politicians lie, when clergy bamboozle their parishioners, when sexual infidelities and crimes thread through the human landscape. We delude ourselves that people used to be good. We act as if each cruelty was a perversion of the essential nature of the human heart.

Hearts are split. They are riven. Sometimes what our heart tells us to do is not kind, not good. When the central Jewish prayer, the Shema, quotes Numbers 15:39 to tell us "do not follow after your hearts and your eyes which lead you astray" we understand the point. Sometimes the heart shows us the highest, the best, the purest that is in us. But not always. We must be guardians of our own hearts.

Vengeance, anger, cruelty -- these are not wayward, occasional impulses. Anyone who believes human beings are all good should visit a playground. There you will see children be alternately kind and cruel, welcoming and shunning, bright images of compassion and darkly perplexed by their own anger.

When confronted by a horrendous, egregious example of human evil, it should not only lead us to congratulate ourselves on our difference, but to wonder about our similarities. What grudges do we nurse, what fury do we protect like a vulnerable child, ensuring that nothing steals away our comforting sense of being wronged? Cain killed from resentment.

This is not original sin. My tradition does not believe that people are condemned form birth. Rather, we are originally split. The internal struggle begins very early and never disappears. In the Jewish tradition there is a confessional in each morning service. For not a day goes by that we are not agents of the unnoticed lie, the small unkindness, the glancing act of resentment that betrays what is best within us.

In a series of social science experiments by Zimbardo, Milgram and others we discovered how quickly normal, well adjusted individuals could be induced by power or authority to act cruelly. Reading such material we are shocked. But we should not be.

We are not called to be perfect. We are called to be kind. But that requires constant care. Of course the bombers in Bulgaria, the murderer in Aurora, these are at the far end of the continuum of human cruelty. But they are not unhuman. Anyone who believes that such acts are not part of the human story is ignorant of history: not only the history of the past several years in America which has seen such acts a number of times, but the history of humanity, where homicide, genocide, torture, rape and indifference stain each page of the honest chronicler's tale.

Is this a despairing message? Not at all. Absent honesty, there is no hope. The philosophy that preaches the goodness of all people -- and the strange departure of a few from the general standard -- is naïve and dangerous. Every evil human act was perpetrated by a human. That simple statement, much as we resist it, is the beginning of understanding.

There is a legend about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, that one night he had a dream. Before him was a big, black heart. He began to pound on it, hoping to destroy it when suddenly, from within, he heard the cry of a child. Evil must be found, fought, punished. But know that it is not only out there; it is also in here, in us. And when we see it in its most radical, painful form, it should call us to elevate ourselves just a bit. It is the only redemption there is in this beleaguered, beautiful world.

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