Myths, Fairy Tales and Tackling Evil

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 13, 2018 / 28 Nisan 5778

Starting this Sunday (10 am) in our Mishnah Berurah class, we’ll be learning the background to the Shabbat table and customs around the kiddush. Drop-ins are welcome. On Sunday the 22nd, the class will run a bit shorter because of an unveiling.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses how the Grimm television series depicts evil and compares that with how the Torah understands our moral actions.

Myths, Fairy Tales and Tackling Evil

Last night, Amitai and I concluded our pretty long-lasting bonding experience–watching all six seasons of Grimm to the grand finale. Yes, the series ended a year ago, but in the age of streaming that hardly matters. For those not familiar with the television series, Grimm was set–and primarily filmed–in our beloved city of Portland. It was based, rather loosely, on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. On the one hand, it was a police detective show mash up featuring scary monsters. On the other hand, it was a journey into the enduring power of storytelling, fairy tales and our all-too-human fascination with dark and light, evil and redemption.

As a family, we’ve had a few of those extended shared experiences. Back in Cleveland, for instance, we read all of the Harry Potter novels out loud over many a long Shabbat afternoon. Well, Laura and I read them aloud, although in later years, Shayah would occasionally take a spell.

Although Laura and Shayah started Grimm with us, it wasn’t their cup of tea. As the boys increasingly grow into themselves, finding something that can appeal to everyone isn’t as easy–and Shabbat these days features more time spent on the trampoline or at the basketball hoop, and less on a shared reading experience.

Like Harry Potter, the story line grew increasingly more sophisticated and darker as the seasons progressed. What began as a foray into Detective Nick Burkhardt’s identity crisis and his efforts to stop individual bad guys slowly morphed into a Nazi-like effort at world domination and culminated in a mythic confrontation with ultimate, apocalyptic evil. Nonetheless, what made the series hang together was the way the characters hung together. Fate conspired to build a makeshift, loving and sometimes dysfunctional family out of very different sorts of individuals. That’s compelling drama.

Grimm wasn’t great television. But it was very well-done. And it reminds us that not only is evil real, but that ordinary people have the power to stand in the breach whenever it threatens to destroy all we hold dear.

Parshat Shemini and Complicated Wrong Doing

Speaking of “stepping into the breach,” that’s a concept that comes from our Hebrew scriptures, showing up in psalms, the Torah and later prophets as well. The basic notion first appears when Moses, on more than one occasion, intercedes and serves as a shield between the sinning Jewish people and God’s wrathful desire to destroy us.

What is remarkable about all this is how our Torah presents very different notions of evil than the black and white understandings that fairy tales, myths or even the post-modern Grimm propagate. Wrong-doing in the Torah is as often committed by the “good guys,” or the main protagonists as it is by ancient enemies. Jacob deceives his father and obtains his brother’s birthright under unsavory conditions. Rachel steals Lavan’s idols (terafim). Moses, as pure a hero as the world has seen, disobeys God when drawing forth water from the rock.

While this may not seem revolutionary in a period when the Happy Hollywood ending is a thing of the past, a great many of us still cling to simplistic notions of good and evil. We find them comforting.

Parshat Shemini doesn’t. This is the section when Aharon’s sons offer “strange fire.” In return for this alien sacrifice, they receive the death penalty. Much has been written that defends their actions, or that attempts to explain their otherwise sudden and inexplicable death. What concerns us here are not those interpretive overlays, but the bare fact that once again, the Torah’s understanding of good and evil is far more complex than ours. It also highlights that from a God-like perspective, innocent-seeming actions may deserve ultimate punishments.

I recall some studies of criminals on death row. Although these individuals were convicted of horrendous acts of murder, when asked, they all viewed themselves as good people. There is something correct in that self-assessment. Our worst actions only tell part of our story. What the narrative of Aaron’s sons seems to offer is the opposite point of view. Even the best of us are judged on a sliding scale of morality. Those who are more morally capable (more robust self-control, finer analytic abilities, etc.) have to reach a higher standard.

This approach to ethical dilemmas has several advantages. It grants to every one of us a tremendous sense of dignity and seriousness. Murderer or over-zealous priest each are judged based on their capacities. Additionally, this sliding-scale approach challenges our tendency to judge others more harshly than we do ourselves. While human law correctly must prioritize wrong-doing and punishment, before God we are each judged individually.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Kosak Trivia

Amitai and I actually meet a Grimm extra by our basketball hoop one Shabbat afternoon? Bonus points if you can guess who it was!

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What sort of on-going activity did you do with your parents? How did that impact you?
  2. Do you believe that evil is absolute or relative? Meaning, do you think evil exists on its own, or that it is dependent on cultural norms?
  3. Most modern Jews probably believe that inter-personal ethical violations are more severe than ritual violations (between humans and God). What do you believe? In what ways does this week’s Torah reading disagree with that assessment? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?

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