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A Dark and Rainy Night in Manhattan: Serpents of Desire, Part 8

A Dark and Rainy Night in Manhattan: Serpents of Desire, Part 8

The boxer named Desire.

by

Last week, we talked about three moral dilemmas -- one of which, I argued, was a phantom.

"Is it okay to take the dying man off the respirator?"

"My elderly mother needs help organizing her house before she moves -- but my kid needs me to help him prepare for finals. Who do I spend the evening with?

"Should Billy lie to the teacher to protect his friend Bobby, when the teacher asks him whether Bobby was cheating on his test?"

It's a dark and rainy night in Manhattan. You throw your trusty Chevy Suburban into reverse and begin to back out of your parking spot, when you hear a sickening thud. You get out of the car to behold, right behind you, a shiny black Lexus convertible -- with a badly dented front end. You look around. The street is entirely dark, not a soul to be seen. Do you leave a note or not?

Well, did you find the impostor?

If you identified the illusory dilemma as the last one -- the dark and rainy night in Manhattan -- then you and I are on the same page. If you didn't -- well, we can still be friends. But in any case, here's my thinking:

The first three dilemmas share a certain, basic quality. They are choices between competing ideals. Each ideal is worthy or noble in its own right, and the dilemma arises only because the two ideals are forced to compete with one another.

There are two "boxers in the ring," two competing values, and the question is: Which boxer wins? Which value is dominant?

For example, take our respirator case: Everybody agrees that prolonging a life is a noble thing, and everyone agrees that improving the quality of a life is also noble -- but what happens when you are forced to choose between the two? And consider Bobby and Billy. Honesty and loyalty are both things worth fighting for. But when each value leads you in a different direction, which one wins out? And so it is with mom and the kids: I have obligations towards both these relatives; how do I weigh my competing obligations?

All these choices are genuine. There are two "boxers in the ring", as it were -- two competing values -- and the question is: Which boxer wins? Which value is dominant? How does my Creator expect me to act?

But let's turn now to the last case: It's that dark and rainy night in Manhattan, and am I pondering whether I am going to leave that note. Let's try and identify the competing "ideals" here. Well, first we have honesty. Honesty says leave the note. Okay, now where's the counter-argument? Think carefully...

There is none.

One second. If there's no second ideal, you might ask, then how come it's such a struggle to figure out what to do? It should be a no-brainer. There's only one "boxer". Shouldn't he win by forfeit?

The answer is: There is indeed another boxer here. But it's not an ideal. It's a boxer named desire.

A BOXER NAMED DESIRE

In this last dilemma, the battle is being waged between an ideal -- honesty -- and what you would rather do. The two boxers are simply named: Honesty vs. the fact that you don't want to leave the note.

That, of course, is not how your brain presents things to you, though. Let's listen in on our internal dialogue as you inspect the mangled front end of the Lexus and wrestle with your decision:

 

"You know, I really should leave that note... But ... one second -- before I do that, do I really know for sure that I'm the one who made that dent? I mean, sure I heard a noise when I backed up, but maybe I just ran over a soda can in the gutter or something. And I just tapped that Lexus anyway; could I really have made such a big dent?

 

Boy, I sure would be a sucker if that car was already dented and I left a note. Anyway, what business did he have parking his toy so near my truck? What a fool I'd be to leave him a note. Look, it's not like he'll be out any money or anything. Heck, his insurance company will pay. That what's uninsured motorist insurance is for, isn't it?...".

 

By the time you're done, you've convinced yourself that it would be positively virtuous to just walk away. It's Robin Hood, vs. the Big Insurance corporations; it's the little guy vs. the rich and arrogant; it's you vs. your own naivete -- why, you wouldn't be so naive as to think he would leave you a note if he was the one who hit you?

But it's all a sham. All those "boxers" are phantoms. The real name of the second boxer is simply desire.

Welcome to the world of "good and evil".

THE MIND-GAMES OF DESIRE

A fascinating Midrash echoes this idea. The last time I quoted a Midrash in this space, I got a lot of incredulous comments from readers -- so a quick word to the wise: The ancient rabbinic commentary known as Midrash generally speaks in the language of allegory, and it often intentionally cloaks its message in outlandish garb. [Traditional commentators from Luzzatto to Maharal have rarely taken the statements of the Midrash literally.] The trick is to read between the lines and to piece together what the sages are driving at. So take a deep breath, and try this one on for size:

The sages of the Midrash state that after a person dies, the Heavenly court allows him to view his Evil Inclination -- his "yetzer hara," as it were. The sages go on to say that if the person was righteous in his lifetime, his Evil Inclination appears to him as a mountain, and if he was wicked, it appears to him as a lowly hill. In either case, the person is astonished: The first person is amazed that he managed to surmount the mountain, while the latter is astonished that such a measly hill deterred him.

What do the sages mean to say here? At first blush, their teaching is counterintuitive. If anything, one would have expected the reverse: Wasn't the wicked person tormented by the "mountain," by roiling desires he found impossible to subdue? And wasn't the righteous person the one with the tamer sense of personal desire, the mere "hill"?

The righteous person sees desire that has not yet been sated, whereas the wicked person sees what desire looks like after one has given into it.

A friend once suggested to me an interesting explanation: Perhaps the difference between a righteous person and a wicked one is not so much that one has a greater or more intense yetzer hara than the other; it's that by and large, the wicked person succumbed to that yetzer hara whereas the righteous person didn't. And that changes what each sees when he looks backward: The righteous person sees desire that has not yet been sated, whereas the wicked person sees what desire looks like after one has given into it.

When desire is yet to be satiated, it looks like a mountain. Just before you eat the chocolate macadamia fudge tort, you can't imagine anything more delicious. But through the rear view mirror, desire gives a different appearance. Once you've finished off the last crumbs, the mountain is gone, and you see reality for what it really is: The tort tasted good for all of thirty seconds, and now you've got two hours ahead of you in the gym to work it off.

Such are the pitfalls of subjectivity. In the post-tree world of "good and evil", a dilemma is born on the rainy streets of Manhattan. Desire, for all its size and power, dwells unseen within ourselves, hiding easily behind "phantom boxers". In this world of subjectivity, evil can get dressed up in pretty clothes -- and when it does, it's hard to know the difference between that which is truly virtuous and compelling, and that which is merely seductive.

THE BEGINNINGS OF DESIRE

The snake's argument, perhaps, stands as a living example of this kind of seductiveness masquerading as virtue. Like that rainy night in Manhattan, the choice whether to eat from the tree or not may have seemed to Adam and Eve like a legitimate dilemma:

"Which 'voice' of God do I listen to? The desire inside me, or the voice that commands me with words?"

It seems like a reasonable enough question. And there were good reasons, perhaps, to advocate partaking from this tree of desire. There were good reasons to think it would be right and good and laudable to bring desire into our lives more powerfully than before. After all, the snake is not altogether wrong about instinct and desire constituting the "voice of God". Passion does come from God, and experiencing it seems to be an essential part of what makes us human. What would it be like to wake up in the morning with no sense of ambition, or to look at a spectacular sunset without a sense of yearning? What if great art seemed humdrum; if romance was wooden and unappealing; if poetry failed to stir our souls? We can well ask if life would still be worth living. To some extent, passion is the very stuff of life.

Even as Adam and Eve stood in the world of true and false, the world of "good and evil" beckoned to us, and desire began to assert its subtle influence.

It's all very reasonable, isn't it? But like that rainy night in Manhattan, there's a sub-text to this dilemma. The intellectual arguments mask another agenda. Even as Adam and Eve stood in the world of true and false, the world of "good and evil" beckoned to us, and desire began to assert its subtle influence.

The astute reader will notice that when Eve paraphrases to the serpent God's command to avoid the Tree, she changes a few nuances in the command. At face value, the changes seem fairly innocuous. For example, Eve identifies the tree she and Adam must avoid as being in the "center of the Garden". But if you go back to chapter two, you'll see that this wasn't where the forbidden tree was really located....

If you look at the verses carefully, and you'll find that this is not the only change she makes -- there are actually a whole bunch of other ones as well. Which brings me to your homework assignment: Get out those number two pencils and see if you can make a list of these discrepancies over the coming days. "In what ways did Eve mis-communicate God's restriction?" Now, when you've got your list together, ask yourself: Why did Eve change these details?

Well, it's possible, of course, that Eve was the unfortunate victim of a communications failure. She wasn't created yet when the original command to avoid the tree was given, and maybe Adam repeated it inaccurately to her. Maybe. But it's also possible that something else was afoot.

Look carefully and see if you think there is any pattern to the various discrepancies between the original command and Eve's paraphrase of it.

I, for one, think such a pattern exists. Crack open your Bible, and see if you agree with me.

 

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Published: October 28, 2007


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Article 9 of 12 in the series Serpents of Desire

Visitor Comments: 5

(5) a.smith, September 7, 2008 8:50 PM

Very thought provoking

Is it possible the serpent ate from the forbidden tree before talking with Eve to convince her? Why is this not considered as a possibility?

(4) Anonymous, April 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Great Article

This was a very intersting and inspiring article. I like the way you connected the rainy night in Manhatten throughout the article. Thank you.

(3) Anonymous, April 2, 2006 12:00 AM

really enjoy your series

thanks.

(2) Jacob Toubi, April 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Excellent

I love this series. It's so compelling and insightful. I never knew so much of the story of Adam and Eve can be analyzed this much. It totally inspires me to see all the infinite wisdom embedded in the Torah.
Thank you for sharing this knowledge.

(1) "Melanie Mue", April 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Still hangin' in there

Your excellent series has kept me (metaphorically)holding my breath for the past 8 weeks. I'm on pins and needles waiting to find out the answers to the interesting and provocative questions being raised. Kepp up the good work, and I'm looking foward to next week's installment!

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