Sunday, December 14, 2008

1:6:135 - Mitigating Circumstances?

Like many midrashim, our midrash today is a simple story that has layers of complexity once you start probing. It reminds us of the importances of understanding all aspects of bad behavior, even mitigating circumstances. Or maybe the exact opposite, as my wife pointed out in a humorous way.

Here's the background. King Ahab was the king of Israel. (He ruled after David and Solomon, but before the Assyrian exile.) Simply put, he was a pretty bad guy. He worshiped idols and married the quintessentially wicked Queen Jezebel. He had a few run-ins with the prophet Elijah.

The Bible states simply, "But there was none like unto Ahab, who did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up." (1 Kings 21:25.) Here's where our midrash picks up:
For six months, R. Levi expounded this verse, to Ahab's discredit. Then Ahab appeared to him [in a dream] during the night and asked, "In what way have I sinned or transgressed against you? For you expand upon the verse's beginning, but ignore its conclusion --- 'Jezebel his wife stirred him up.'" Thereafter, for the next six months, R. Levi expounded on the entire verse . . . ." (1:6:135)
The question that follows is why is the last part of the verse --- the part about Jezebel stirring Ahab up --- important, either to Ahab or R. Levi or us?

From Ahab's perspective, I think the verse serves as mitigation. Of course, Ahab cannot justify his actions by blaming Jezebel for his misdeeds, and he does not try. Instead, his argument to R. Levi is a more modest one. He notes that although he did evil, he at least had a weak explanation, albeit not a justification, for this. He did not set out to do evil; he was just egged on by his evil wife. Ahab wants the complete story told. And this is certainly fair.

But what about R. Levi? He was a rabbi and a teacher, and he expounded on the story for a full year. He wanted to understand why people do evil and then teach this to help others avoid doing the same.

To do so, it is obviously important to understand the contributing factors that led to the improper actions. And a very real danger in discussing evil is to depict the wrongdoer as an otherworldly monster, completely removed from the lives and experiences of the rest of us. But doing so diminishes not only the accuracy of the story, but also its effectiveness as a teaching device or a moral story. We have nothing to learn from an evildoer who is is completely unlike us. But have much to learn from an evildoer who is like us in some ways. We can note the similarities and then try to avoid going down the same path.

Here, Ahab was influenced in some way by his wife. (I won't speculate on how exactly she "stirred him up".) Everyone can relate to that. Most of us at some point have been influenced by a family member or a friend to do take some action that we otherwise might not have taken. By noting this, R. Levi tells not only a more accurate story, but also a more powerful story.

Shakespeare recognized the power of this insight. Most of his villains are motivated by emotions that we all share, or at least that we understand. Lady Macbeth was motivated by greed (and Macbeth himself by being "stirred up" by Lady Macbeth), Richard III by lust for power, Edmund in King Lear by anger at his mistreatment as the illegitimate son. These characters have depth and complexity, and we identify --- at least to some degree --- with the villain. The sole exception to this rule (I think) is Iago in Othello, who does evil for no apparent reason. And as a result, his character comes across flat. We sympathize and empathize with Edmund during his opening soliloquy; we never do so with Iago.

What about us? Why should we care about Ahab's requested qualification?

My initial (and perhaps oblivious) answer is what I noted above. We can identify a little with Ahab, and that makes his story more interesting and poignant.

I mentioned this story on Friday night to my family, fully expecting to have the above discussion with my kids. My wife, however, took the story in a different direction.

She noted that Ahab's evil was not mitigated by Jezebel. To the contrary: Ahab listened to her time and time again. He was more culpable for continuing in this relationship, not less culpable. (In fact, the next midrash (1:6:136) makes a similar point.) This is an exacerbating factor, not a mitigating one.

That may be true, I noted cleverly, but it does not seem to be what the midrash is saying. After all, Ahab appeared to R. Levi and requested this clarification. He would not have done so if it were an exacerbating factor.

Not so, my wife replied, even more cleverly. The midrash is not saying that this was a mitigating factor. It is only saying that Ahab thought this was a mitigating factor. Ahab was oblivious in life. Why would anyone think that death would have improved him?


My wife is exactly right. The first time that Ahab listened to Jezebel and did something wrong, he might have had an excuse. But when this happened time after time, and year after year, Ahab became even more culpable. He repeatedly and knowingly places himself in a situation where he would be influenced to act wrongfully. And that was a separate (and in many ways worse) problem.

1 comment:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

As they say: "Out of the mouths of babes thou hast perfected praise!"

(That is, "beautiful woman" babe, not "baby" babe, just to be clear.)