Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Most people are aware of the standard pessimism test, namely is the cup half full or half empty?  But there are so many more like:  A pessimist believes that if you think everything is coming your way, you're driving in the wrong lane, a pessimist believes that for every drop of rain that falls someone gets wet, a pessimist believes that if you have the choice of two evils you'll probably get both, a pessimist roots for the Red Sox, either he'll be proven right, or pleasantly surprised.  I could go on a while, but I really think that that there's only one true test for optimism and pessimism.  Are human beings basically good or basically bad?  Personally, I'd like to think of myself as an optimist, but let's try to figure out what the first two Torah readings of our Chumash have to say on the topic.

            Initially, the Torah seems to take a very upbeat position.   When humanity is created the verse records:  Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground (Genesis 1:26)."  This is a propitious beginning.  We have at least some of God's attributes.  If we have to take after someone, we could do a lot worse than having God's features.  What could go wrong?  Well, it turns out, a lot.  The first hint that our success is less than guaranteed comes in Chapter two.  The verse states:  Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man's nostrils, and the man became a living person (2:7).  Sounds good, doesn't it?  But there is an indication of trouble in the Hebrew text.  The word for formed is va'yetzer, and it is spelled unusually with two yuds in place of the expected one.  Just a few verses later (verse 19) this same word is used to describe the formation of the animals, and just one letter yud is used.  What does this indicate? 

According to Jewish tradition, the doubled letter is an allusion to there being two forms present in the development of human beings. This word has also taken on a parallel connotation in Jewish thinking.  This word describes humanity's inclinations, for both positive and negative.  We call these the Yetzer Hatov (the good) and the Yetzer Hara (the bad, sorry no ugly).  In other words humans have the potential to go towards the light and good or the dark side and evil.  What we call the Evil Inclination isn't really evil, it just contains those aspects of the physical side of humans which can lead us towards bad behavior.  The world couldn't continue to exist without out urges towards reproduction, wealth generation and consumption.  It is this potential for evil which can bring problems if our Yetzer Hatov, disposition towards spirituality, isn't also employed.

This is where the picture begins to look dismal.  The final few verses in last week's Torah reading are a lead up to the destruction of the primordial world by the flood.  In those verses it states:  The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and that every intention (yetzer) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (6:5).  Now there's room for serious pessimism, because it appears that the evil, physical side of human nature is in the ascendant.  This possible interpretation of human development is noticed even after the flood has seemingly scrubbed the earth clean, when God says:  I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention (Yetzer) of humanity's heart is only evil from their youth (8:21).  The Sforno (Rav Ovadya ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550) comments that this means that the evil side is getting stronger.  It looks bad for the optimists out there.                  

            But the Malbim (Rav Meir Leibish ben Yechiel Michel Weisser, 1809-1879) comes to our rescue.  He explains that the Torah is describing a process of human development.  Whenever the evil inclination is discussed the human involved is portrayed with the words na'ar and adam.  Na'ar is the Hebrew term for a youth, and usually is used when the subject is around the age of puberty, bar or bat mitzvah.  The word originally means to shake (not stir), and could be depicting the birth agitation or perhaps the dislocations and tribulations of youth.  The word adam is used to describe humans when we are referring to the physical side of mankind, because the organic side of us comes from the adama or earth, the source of the raw materials in our bodies.  So, the Yetzer Hara, negative side of our nature is connected to immaturity and the earthy aspect of our being.  The bad choices come from not realizing that we can access higher motivations than simple needs and pleasures.  We can learn control and boundaries once we've figured out that we can serve our souls rather than sate our bodies.  We can say no to our bodies once we've begun saying yes to our souls.  Then we have risen above our animal features, and begun to activate our image of God.

            The words that are employed for the mature, more sophisticated human beings are Ish and Isha, man and woman.  These terms are derived from the Hebrew word eish or fire.  It's more important to fuel the fire of our soul than to stoke the furnace of our body.  Once we've achieved that position we can allow our spiritual side to control our behavior.  We have moved toward emulating God.

            The pessimist can't believe that humans can outgrow the insatiable demands of our physical side; the optimist is sure that our higher functions can dominate our being and that we can attain spiritual prominence.  I side with the optimists because once we've asked the question about our connection to the Divine there's no going back to the uncritical acts of our youth.  We may still fail, but we know we can do better.  From then on pure joy will only come from through our souls.

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