Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Parsha Bereshit: The Joys of Dealing with Temptation

The creation of the universe, potent trees that give knowledge and life, a talking snake, and having a fourth of the world's population wiped out with a single murder. Yes, it is that time of year where we recommence the Torah cycle and start off with the Torah portion of Bereshit. One of the less commonly analyzed sections of Bereshit is the end of the Torah portion, where G-d is so disappointed with humanity that He intended to wipe out nearly all of mankind. A couple verses beforehand (Genesis 6:5), G-d saw just how low mankind had fallen. It was so bad that any thought that man had produced [in his heart] was non-stop, pure evil (וכל יצר מחשבת לבו רק רע כל היום). What are we supposed to take from this verse? Is is saying that man is really that immoral and irredeemable?

Viewing it from a Christian paradigm, the answer is an unequivocal "yes." In Christian theology, man is really that irredeemable. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with such an interpretation. First of all, G-d is delivering a judgment of mankind within a specific temporal context. This verse was not meant to be an eternal condemnation of mankind, but rather illustrating that free will's double-edged nature can either result in good or evil (and in this case, humanity opted for evil). Second, G-d doesn't judge for future sins; He only judges us for the culmination of past events and how that has made us who we are (JPS commentary on Genesis 6:5). Third, these individuals made a decision to choose evil. Even if there is a powerful inclination to commit evil, one of the joys of being human is we are beings created in His image, which means that we have the potential to choose good. As G-d states earlier in this week's Torah portion, "Sin crouches at the door, but you can overcome it (Genesis 4:7)."

One of the many things I appreciate about Judaism is its ability to adapt to reality. As my previous comments imply, Judaism does not have a rosy picture of human nature. As Genesis 6:5 points out, mankind has the potential to be horrid. Picking up a history book or newspaper and reading it confirms that reality. Even so, man's proclivity towards doing bad, or what Judaism calls the יצר הרע (the evil inclination; yetzer hara), is only part of the equation. As can also be observed, man can choose to be good by committing good deeds.

But wait....how is any of this ideal? Weren't we supposed to enjoy the idyllic peace in the Garden of Eden? In my humble opinion, no. If we had everything handed to us, life would be boring and numb. Additionally, although there was a disobedience element to Adam and Eve's eviction out of the Garden of Eden, it was ultimately their inability to take personal responsibility and perform acts of teshuvah. We weren't created to be angels. Not to be tautological, but we were created as humans. Being created in His image means we have a divine spark, and that a part of us is divine, which is great. Nevertheless, we still have that animalistic part of our selves. There is a famous parable in which the yetzer hara is captured for a few days. What the rabbis noticed is that no one built a home, engaged in business, or got married. There wasn't even a single laid-egg because even the animals lost their drive! The moral of the story here (Talmud, Yoma 69b) is that if we eliminiated this "evil inclination," all of human and animal life would cease to exist. Our yetzer hara literally is a necessary evil, and as R. Joseph Telushkin points out (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1, p. 36), we are here to channel our "evil" inclination for the betterment of ourselves, mankind, and to serve G-d.

Additionally, the Talmud (Kedushin 30b) takes a look at Genesis 6:5. In Rashi's commentary on Kedushin 30b, he points out that כל היום that the evil inclination is constantly making its move in terms of tempting us to do wrong. Both the evil inclination and the good inclination are in play, which means if the spiritual bar is set so high where we ask ourselves "What would G-d do," then we're bound to screw up because not to be tautological, we're only human. We will err. We are here to do our best. That is why G-d had such foresight that He created teshuvah before He created the universe (Talumd, Pesachim 54a).

So how do we deal with the yetzer hara? There has been much ink spilled to answer this question, but I will nevertheless provide a brief answer. In hopes of not sounding too cliché, we deal with it one day at a time. Throughout our entire lives, we will have situations that test us. Sometimes, the choice will be easy to make, and other times, doing the right thing will border on being unbearably difficult. There are people who think that sounds painful. Being responsible and having to make decisions is not easy. It is simpler to have someone make decisions for you. But that is not what being free is about. Our ability to choose between right and wrong is the very thing that makes us human. Rather than shy away from it, we should take the gift that Adam and Eve gave us and live our lives to the fullest, which is the way G-d intended.

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