The rabbis have taught us that all beginnings are difficult. We see that
the beginnings of humans as described in the Torah in its earliest
chapters, affirms this truism. Sin, jealousy, murder, paganism, robbery,
corruption and injustice are all hallmarks of the early generations of
humans. Of course, there are righteous people as well and the world is not
completely bereft of acts of goodness, compassion and kindness. But the
general picture portrayed by the Torah is a bleak one.
Why should beginnings be so difficult? Why couldn’t the world have gotten
off to a better start? The rabbis over the centuries have pondered this
problem and have reached one basic conclusion, though naturally each in
their own different style and prose. Judaism views humans as being
basically prone to evil behavior. The Torah itself states that the nature
of humans is evil from its very youthful beginnings. As such, the only
hope, in fact, the necessary imperative for civilization and its survival
and progress is educating and training the young from their earliest years
in the positive character traits of discipline, respect, cooperation,
tolerance and non-violent behavior.
A positive attitude towards life and living must be instilled early and
often. Otherwise, the inherent evil attitude born within us will always
rule over human actions and policies. The beginnings are difficult because
we are born as narcissistic, selfish, self-centered people. Our world
horizon is narrow. A baby cries and demands immediate attention no matter
how tired and exhausted its mother may be. One never expects consideration
from an infant or a toddler. It is when that infant and toddler grows
older and still behaves so selfishly that the problems of humanity and
society begin in earnest.
The Torah predicates itself upon a human being’s freedom of choice.
Judaism does not believe or preach any items of predestination.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that many things can influence that human
being’s freedom of choice. By realizing that humans begin essentially from
a minus position regarding their character traits and behavior, the
necessity for self-improvement becomes obvious.
All of the myriad tyrants, murderers, criminals and evil people of history
and our current world began as cute cuddly little babies. Selfishness is
tolerated from babies. But when one reaches physical maturity, such
behavior is anti-social and evil. All of the values and commandments of
the Torah came to help people grow and mature spiritually and
psychologically. How one will apply the lessons of Torah to one’s own life
and behavior is also a matter of freedom of choice.
The inherent evil within us can twist all apparently good traits and use
them for destructive and selfish ends. The rabbis always advised humans to
not only analyze and correct one’s mistakes and bad behavior but
one’s “good” deeds as well. For as all of the prayers of Yom Kippur
indicated to us, our beginnings were tainted and the evil inclination
still lurks deeply within our character.
Our rabbis pondered the necessity for the evil inclination, for
selfishness and self-gratification, to be present within us at all. The
Talmud relates to us that at the time of the great Ezra, the Jewish
leaders “trapped” the evil inclination and put out one of its eyes,
however we will understand that metaphor. Therefore the rampant paganism
that was present in First Temple times was greatly reduced amongst Jews in
Second Temple times. The Talmud then asks why they did not put out the
other eye as well. It answers that upon attempting to do so they realized
that a hen would not continue to lay eggs and that the world as we know it
could no longer function and exist.
The evil inclination can be turned to positive uses. It must be
disciplined, checked and reined in, and not be allowed to dominate human
life and behavior. Nevertheless, since it is so ingrained within us, the
Torah sought to channel it and redirect its goals but never to completely
destroy its presence within us. Judaism teaches that by recognizing our
beginnings we recognize the limitations and dangers that lurk within us.
Only by recognizing them and admitting their presence can we then take the
counter measures necessary to deal with those shortcomings and weaknesses.
All beginnings are difficult. But ignoring those beginnings and not
dealing with them correctly, judiciously and in a timely fashion makes
life even more difficult for us and for others as well. The great holiday
season just passed is a reminder to us as to our beginnings and the
beginning of the world as we know it and our challenge to improve that
world and ourselves.
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com