Timshel and East of Eden

One of my favorite books is John Steinbeck’s immortal East of Eden. I watched part of the movie in a class my senior year of high school, and decided I should read the book because I identified with the character of Cal. Took me two years to actually do it, though.

(And I read it at the time in my life where I needed it most, trying to wrap my head around sibling abuse, etc. But that’s not important right now.)

Besides the prose (which I love), there’s a fantastic, biblical story. A Cain-and-Abel parallel, sometimes. All the good, just characters’ names start with an A (Adam, Aron, Abra), while the supposed villains all start with a C (Cyrus, Charles, Cathy, Caleb). Cyrus is the father of Adam and Charles, who likes Adam better, so Charles nearly kills him. Adam marries Cathy, who cheats on him with Charles, and bears him twin boys—Caleb and Aron. Aron’s the sweet one who everyone likes, and has a girlfriend named Abra. Cal’s the dark, mean one who people stay away from.

And then, in this last part detailing Cal and Aron, Steinbeck steps away from Cain and Abel. Aron is self-righteous. Holier-than-thou. He ignores what doesn’t fit into his perfect world. Cal loves his brother and gives up what he wants for Aron, and is always wondering why he’s so bad. He doesn’t ignore the bad. He’s more the one to embrace it. Stepping into it so Aron won’t have to.

One of the main themes in this book is one word—timshel. It comes from the original Hebrew version of the Bible, a word meaning thou mayest. In the story of Cain and Abel, there’s a verse where God tells Cain in the English translation “Thou shalt overcome sin.” But in the original, it’s “Thou mayest.” Timshel.

We have the power over our own lives. We may overcome, or we may not. It’s our choice. Agency. We can stand back and let God or Fate or who/whatever determine our lives for us, but it won’t get us anywhere. We’re responsible for ourselves.

So, no. We’re not going to overcome, necessarily. But we CAN, if we choose to. We can overcome whatever life throws our way.


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