One of the principles of rabbinic Judaism is the idea of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, the good inclination and the evil inclination. According to this idea, we are, in essence, blank slates and are subject to different influences in our lives. It is our obligation to, as Pirke Avot teaches: “kovesh et yitzro”, conquer the evil inclination and follow the good.
I find one character in the Bible to be the expression of the struggle between the good and evil inclinations: King Ahasueraus from the story of Esther. The king does not have an independent idea through the entire story but listens and agrees to the advice of anyone who offers it. We have Esther and Mordecai on the one hand and Haman on the other and the king is caught between these polar opposite characters always seeming to follow the instruction of the last person he talks to. His failure to take control of his own life but to leave it to others to decide matters for him is a sign of his moral weakness.
Clearly, there are many examples of similar characters in more contemporary literature. But I want to comment on one such character from a source that is very close to my heart. I actually hadn’t thought of this character in this way (or, frankly, in any serious way) until I heard a bit of news yesterday.
All of us grew up with fictional characters whom we most clearly identified with. For me, it was was none other than Theodore Cleaver, aka the Beaver, from the TV show Leave It to Beaver.
As the younger brother in a family of two boys, I identified immediately with the Cleaver household even though my mother didn’t wear pearls to breakfast and my father occasionally came upon a household object he couldn’t fix or a problem he couldn’t solve. Despite these obvious differences, I felt a kinship with the Beaver and the world in which he lived.
Beaver grew up in a very stable home. His parents loved him. His father always found the ethical dimensions in issues that arose in family life. This were not a demonstrably “religious” family. Still, Ward Cleaver, played by Hugh Beaumont who was in real life an ordained minister, made sure that his children knew that their actions were being judged and that they needed to behave properly and to be punished for wrongdoing. Just as we say about the book of Esther, God’s name wasn’t mentioned in the scripts but God was always behind the scenes in the Cleaver home.
Beaver tried very hard to be good and clearly knew right from wrong and wanted to do right. Left on his own, he probably would have done right all the time. But he was surrounded by friends who often led him astray. His best friends: Larry, Gilbert, Whitey and Richard always got “The Beav” into trouble by appealing to his selfish or greedy inclination or by just taking advantage of how much he trusted them as friends. There were a few occasions where Beaver did some “bad things” on his own. But, the vast majority of the time, he was under the influence of others that urged him to “turn from the good and do the bad”.
And, entering into this picture was the great character of Eddie Haskell played by Ken Osmond. Eddie was older brother Wally’s friend, but he was always hanging around the Cleaver household and annoying everyone with his phony compliments and his polite behavior. Once behind closed doors, he showed his true colors by being the TV equivalent of the “yetzer ha-ra”, the evil influence that preyed on those who trusted him and who took his advice.
Ken Osmond died yesterday at the age of 76 and for those of us of a certain age, it provided a moment to reflect on lessons we learned from his alter ego.
Unlike Beaver’s other friends, Eddie was sly and deceptive. As Beaver grew, he was able to avoid falling victim to the friends of his age. He knew them and figured out they were going to get him in trouble (at least most of the time).
But Eddie was different. Beaver looked up to Eddie in a way, probably because he wished his brother Wally would be less perfect than he was. Eddie appealed to Beaver’s sense of adventure and daring and he was usually easy prey for Eddie’s advice.
Looking back on the show, it wouldn’t have been the same without Eddie’s character. Even though, in the end, he was always proven to be wrong and good always triumphed, the devilish look in his eye that he passed along to Beaver made the younger Cleaver boy more real and more believable than Wally.
God forbid, I’m not suggest we listen to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination that is always a threat to our ethical and moral behavior. But all kids growing up- and maybe adults too- need to push the boundaries just a little bit and looking back on Leave it to Beaver, Eddie’s character was the piece that made the stories real.
Ward and June Cleaver often wondered why Wally hung around with Eddie when he was so distasteful. I’m not sure Wally ever gave them a good answer. I’ll say it for him: Eddie made life more interesting for the Cleavers.
We should all be so privileged to know a character like Eddie Haskell. But, may we all be strong enough to not to follow his lead… at least most of the time.