As Simple as Good Versus Bad?

At one point I had to make peace with the realization that while my to-read list is constantly expanding, my reading time is shrinking. The summer is the only time when the pile of books (in my case a virtual one since I use a Kindle) is declining. Normally, when I finish a book I immediately start a new one, but occasionally it feels wrong if not disrespectful. Some books require a day or two to take in, and to use their wisdom to reflect on my own life. With those kind of books, the act of reading is like the data collection phase that awaits the analysis and contemplation at the end. 

This summer it was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The book provided me with deep insights into the issues of parenthood, social class, race, art, and the struggle of choosing the proper life’s path. But what affected me the most was the realization that none of the main characters are either good or bad. They were all lying, manipulating, betraying friends, and reneging on promises while always motivated by the sincere conviction to do the right thing.  And yet I found myself strongly associating with some of them, easily explaining away their immoral acts, while hating others, rendering their licentious behavior as pure evil. They were often facing the struggle we are all familiar with of choosing not between right and wrong but between two rights. Nonetheless, I created in my head two teams, mine was good and should be forgiven for their faults, and the others, of course, were incapable of doing good. 

I fell even deeper into the hole of moral discomfort when I realized that if I had been in the situations described in the book, most likely I would have acted like the characters I disliked and not like those I favored. 

This message is immensely important today when our discourse has become so black and white, binary, clearly divided between good and evil, us and them, Trump and Obama, Fox News and MSNBC, that we so often miss out on a large spectrum of colors and shades. 

“One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time they were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure what side of the line you stood on.” 

As readers of the Torah we are used to taking sides. We side with Jacob and not with Esau because we are on his team. He is our patriarch, and the one whose name was changed to Israel, the name of our people and our state. But it is important for the Torah to tell us that it was Jacob who deceived his blind father, Isaac, and stole from his brother, while Esau was the most loving and loyal son. This complexity characterizes most conflicts in our bible, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, David and Saul, because even God is criticized by Abraham, Moses and many others for being wrong. 

“In Pauline and Mal’s house, nothing was simple. In her parents’ house, things had been good or bad, right or wrong, useful or wasteful. There had been nothing in between. Here, she found, everything had nuance; everything had an unrevealed side or unexplored depths. Everything was worth looking at more closely.”

This is exactly what we should start doing with the approach of the High Holy Days, looking at everything, ourselves and the world around us, more closely, and even better, more compassionately.