Rabbi David Walk
This is very embarrassing. There are so many times when I have this great urge to do things which I know are wrong. Especially when I'm listening to a speaker, I have this itch which I fight to not scratch. I just want to interrupt and crack a joke or correct what I consider to be an error. I know that it's not nice, but I feel this need to just do it. Since I teach middle school, I know for a fact that I'm not alone in this world of impulses. Not only do these wonderful young people give in to these urges, but even more commonly I see on their angelic (or not) faces the struggle against the desire to perform the dastardly deed of rudeness. I rather enjoy watching this phenomenon, and sometimes when I'm speaking I will ask, 'So, Johnny (I don't teach any Johnnies, but if any of my students are reading this, you know who you are.) what do you feel that you must say?' Where do these urges originate, why do we have them, and what do they mean? I'm not a psychologist or even a wannabe. I'm just a simple teacher, but I believe that there are answers to these questions embedded in our parsha which deals with the issue of evil.
I'm sure that most of you out there in reader-land already have a reasonable grasp on the story line in this week's Torah reading. The world sins and God punishes, big time as in 'How long can you tread water?' I'm not interested right now in the historicity of this narrative. That's a fascinating subject for another article. I'm concerned with the experience of sin and judgment. The episode really begins at the end of last week's parsha. There we are told: And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented ('regretted' or 'was sorry') that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart (Genesis 6:5-6). BTW the Christian translation called The Message has a more dramatic version of verse 6: God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. I think that's what we'd hear if we could read the thoughts of adolescent males. But didn't God see this coming? Why the disappointment?
God really does give us free will. Whether God knew that this would happen is an argument, which is irrelevant to our discussion about humanity. Humans are complex, and can go in many directions. Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik described the issue in this way: In the eyes of Judaism, man is in potentia a good creature, a developing creature. He often finds himself, however, in the grips of an overwhelming and irresistible force that drags him downward. In short, Scripture trusts man, but also suspects and has its doubts about him (Divrei Hagut ve-Ha'arakha, pp. 252-253). These doubts are expressed even more strongly later in our parsha: And the Lord said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake, for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21). This brings us to two questions. First, are humans so bad? And why is God becoming so tolerant?
There are two directions we can go on this issue. Mankind really is bad. After all we were just created from dirt. So, we are irredeemable, and God is just being hugely benevolent to allow us continued existence. As Rav Yitzchak Blazer, a follower of Reb Yisroel Salanter, wrote: Because man was formed from dust of the ground, his heart inclines to material desires, to eat, drink, and be merry, to covet fortune and riches, to love honor and power, to don haughtiness and pride, to delight in carnal pleasures, in every lowly trait and every despicable desire (Sha'arei Ohr).
Or we can go in the direction of Rabbi Blazer's contemporary, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who said: An upright man must believe in his own life and feelings that follow a straight path from the foundation of his soul, that they are good and upright and that they lead him along the straight path. A Jew is obligated to believe that the soul of God is found within him, that his entire essence is one letter of the Torah. (Orot ha-Torah, chap. 11).
In either case, God is giving humanity the right to freely choose the path of one's life. That's wonderful of the Creator, and I'm sure God has Divine reasons for this but I'm not concerned with God's choices. They are beyond me. I'm very concerned with my choices and the choices of mankind. What has God told me, when we were told that we have an 'evil impulse from our youth'? I guess that means that my middle schoolers have a chance to overcome these impulses.
There's a story in the Tiferet Yisroel, by Rav Yisroel Lifshitz (1762-1840), about Moshe Rabbeinu. A great king sends his court artist to capture Moshe's image. When the great artist returns the scholars of the realm inform the king that this can't be the great leader, because the picture shows the face of a corrupt and cruel individual. Finally the king goes himself to visit Moshe to ascertain the truth. Moshe informs the king that by birth and nature he is cruel and corrupt but he has fought his whole life to overcome these character flaws, and his career is the result.
It's true we are made of dust and Divine sparks. It's true that we are naturally endowed with youthful impulses which can lead to both high and low jinx. But God gives us the opportunity to overcome these baser instincts and to mature into righteous adults. As Moshe's example teaches, it's all up to us. God graciously allows that choice.