‘Thou mayest’

When I had the chance to meet the members of my favorite band, I asked the keyboard player the derivation of her name, Timshel. I smiled when she confirmed that her parents had taken it from what is my favorite work of literature, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck.

The word “timshel” figures prominently into the book (spoiler alert). A group of studious, wise men are discussing the banishment of Cain into the land east of Eden. At issue is whether God tells Cain that ‘thou shalt’ conquer sin (a promise) or ‘do thou rule over’ sin (a command). After much study, the key word — timshel — is finally found to mean ‘thou mayest’ conquer sin — a choice.

This becomes key in the interpretation of the events of Genesis as well as those in the book. ‘Thou mayest’: the assertion is that it’s up to us.

I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.

What a burdensome, wonderful privilege we have to choose. I realize that many of you reading this may not be religious, and I honor and respect your beliefs. I hope that regardless of this, you can agree that the soul is a ‘glittering instrument’, one that can descend into genocide, or soar to the ultimate self-sacrifice, laying down one’s life for another.

Let me share a story that is a little embarrassing but illustrative of this belief. When I was in fourth grade and was in hot water (most likely for talking out of turn), I was taken to the guidance counselor who asked me, “Why did you behave that way?” In an answer that was as misguided as it was precocious, I answered, “I don’t know — I guess it’s fate!” She responded in a way that I never forgot and which shaped my perception ever since: “I believe you make your own fate!” Timshel.

When my sweet wife gave me a Road ID last year, lest I keel over from running in some strange town, I wanted a way to make it personal, but was limited to a few characters. I thought about what might make a sincere declaration of my beliefs (or, worst case, an epitaph), I added the word “timshel”.  The weight of it, ‘Thou mayest”, is much greater than the few ounces of the bracelet, but is a weight we are blessed to carry.

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