By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl.
Like it or not, we are each engaged in a battle against our own set of mean genes. They are wily opponents too. Masters of the visceral, they control through satisfaction, pain, and pleasure.
(Dr.'s Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, Mean Genes)
Destroy man's desire to sin, our sages tell us, and you would destroy the world.
Not that anyone needs to sin. But one who lacks the desire to sin is not a citizen of this world. And without citizens, who will effect lasting change? (Tzvi Freeman)
As a child, Reb Herschel of Krakow was once scolded by his father for not arising early for prayer service. "I can't help it," complained the boy. "It's that Yetzer Hara of mine. It keeps telling me to turn over and go back to sleep – that it's too early to awake."
"But Heschele," countered the father, "don't you see? The Yetzer Hara is just doing his job. The Yetzer Hara is an angel created by G-d with the assignment to divert people from observing His will. You ought to be smart enough to do as he does, not as he says. Next time the Yetzer Hara entices you to stay in bed, tell yourself: 'Aha! He's at it again – he's up bright and early fulfilling his duty. I too have a mission; I must get out of bed quickly to get on with my task as well.'"
"Oh father," retorted the child with a twinkle in his eye, "you make it sound so simple. But since when does the Yetzer Hara have to contend with a Yetzer Hara that tries to stop him of his assignment? Perhaps that’s why he is so efficient. I, on the other hand . . ."
Our Parsha – Noach – devotes itself to the well-known episode of the flood. It begins with the Divine declaration: "The end of all flesh has come before me; the world is filled with crime; I will therefore destroy the earth," G-d proceeds to instruct Noach to build himself an ark, for he alone has found favor in G-d’s eyes.
It’s hard to imagine how much has occurred since we read the cheerful narrative of creation, with all its optimism and exuberance, only days ago. How soon things have deteriorated since we encountered the world’s Divine architect and origins – the masterwork that found so much favor in the eyes of its master.
There’s hardly been enough time to soak-up the deep and uplifting significance of all this, yet the narrative has already taken a sharp turn south. The vision of a lofty and righteous universe, dominated by a spiritual human species, has somehow given way to a culture of decadence and corruption.
The virtue and merit of a world crafted with Divine design and purpose – of man having been created in G-d’s image and likeness – evidently did not pan-out very well. The tour de force has not turned out that glorious after all.
Having immediately betrayed their creator by eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve – the very first humans – set the decline in motion. Next, their son Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealously, as if the universe was not big enough for the both of them. From there proceeded a progressive downward spiral.
By the end of Parshas Bereishis, the world has become so ugly and morally decrepit that G-d regrets having created it. Upon describing, how man’s thoughts were "only for evil," G-d proclaims His desire to obliterate humanity from the face of the earth – to wipe the slate clean and start all over again.
Our Parsha describes the devastating flood that G-d unleashed, which lasted forty days: “The waters strengthened and increased greatly upon the earth, all the high mountains which are under the entire heavens were covered. . . And all flesh that moves on earth perished – among the birds, the animals . . . all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life . . . expired. Only Noach survived, and those with him in the ark.” (Genesis 8:21-23).
But how are we to understand this? How is it that man – this lofty entity created in G-d's own image and likeness – would, in no time at all, lapse into the depth of depravity? The answer to this deserving question lies well within the human anatomy.
While it is true that man is exponentially superior to all other forms of creation with whom he shares planet earth, he is clearly not without fault. While man does indeed possess a Divine essence and high spiritual potential, a more comprehensive view of his composition and temperament, reveals the existence of a rival spirit with whom he shares his body. Our Parsha alludes to this less glorious human dimension.
After the devastating deluge, when Noach returned to the ravaged and desolate land, the Torah relates how "Noach built an altar to G-d. He took a few of all the clean livestock and the clean birds, and sacrificed offerings on the altar. G-d smelled the appeasing fragrance, and G-d said to Himself, 'Never again will I curse the soil because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.'" (Genesis 8:20-21)
The above declaration from the mouth of G-d, speaks volumes as regards man’s raw nature. The Creator himself attests to the fact that man – the crown jewel of his handiwork – is desperately lacking in his natural and unrefined state.
The upshot is that man is comprised of two rival forces, hence the Talmudic statement: “The Holy One, blessed be He, created two impulses, one good and the other evil.” (Talmud Berochos 61a)
As alluded to in the following Biblical statement, the two forces are diametrical in every sense of the imagination: “Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate from inside you. The upper hand will go from one government to the other.” (Genesis 25:23)
The animal spirit is passionate and hedonistic. It continuously gravitates towards physical pleasure and gratification. Indeed, its very essence and temperament is one of wanting, desiring, and coveting. It can be compared to a machine that constantly craves. This life force epitomizes the ultimate of selfishness.
The Divine soul, on the other hand, is of a G-d-like quality. It is the inexplicable conscience within man that distinguishes him from beast. This spirit impels man towards goodness and sanctity. It is the epitome of selflessness and virtue.
Much the way the human mind is perpetually engaged in thought, human existence is invariably expressed through one of these two souls. Man thus has the capacity and choice to live, at any given time, on either the spiritual or the animal plane. (There is no third possibility because there is no third soul).
There is another fundamental difference between the animal and Divine souls that is of paramount importance. Whereas the animal spirit needs no prelude or introduction in order to function as a viable force within the human arena, the Divine spirit clearly does.
This is to say that the impulse and ambition of the animal spirit is spontaneous and automatic – its aggressive and emotional temperament is felt naturally, regardless of whether or not one makes any overtures towards it.
The latter is not the case with regards to the Divine spirit. Unlike its counterpart, the Divine spirit is intellective by nature. It is hence stimulated and nurtured through a meticulous process of development and cultivation.
To use an analogy: The flowers and vegetation of a beautiful garden are the result of careful effort in cultivating and maintaining a piece of land. Remarkably though, the weeds that grow on the same piece of land require no effort whatsoever – they need no cultivation or care; no water or pruning.
These organisms appear whether they are planted or not; whether they are wanted or not. In fact, if one desires a weed-free garden, one must take special measures to rid the garden of the infiltration of such undesirables.
The same is true with regards to the Divine and animal souls as well. The Divine spirit, like the rose, requires meticulous care and cultivation. The animal soul, on the other hand, needs no cultivation. The impulse and ambition of this wild spirit is entirely spontaneous. Its aggressive and emotional temperament is felt regardless of whether or not one makes any overtures towards it.
This should sufficiently explain our earlier quandary – how the loftiest of creatures can fall into the depth of deprivation and immorality. Since the animal soul is the default human operating system, it is only natural that in absence of higher spiritual definition and purpose, we find ourselves in the grasp of the animal order. No wonder that Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola would plaint to the Almighty in the following manner:
“Master of the universe, what do you want from your children? You have after all, placed them in a benighted world. A world where Satan himself prances amongst them, fanning their evil inclination; where all the things that provoke fleshly desires are ranged before their very eyes, while the warnings of retribution lie hidden between the covers of some moralistic tome. You can be certain that if you had arranged things the other way around – with the place of retribution right in front of their eyes, and all the fleshly desires hidden away in some learned old book, not a single person would ever do anything wrong!”
Man must, indeed, engage in higher purpose and value in order to connect with his higher essence. Without proactive higher spiritual affiliation the default animal-self will no doubt reign supreme.
But why, to begin with, has the Almighty created us with an animal soul? Why should we have to contend with a dark and evil side? Is this a blessing or a curse? Chassidic philosophy maintains that it is indeed a great blessing.
In response to the question: "How can G-d call the sixth day of creation 'Very Good.' after all, isn't it the day that Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden?" The Lubavitcher Rebbe asserts that this too had to have been a good thing; otherwise G-d would not have referred to that whole day as being "very good." But how could a sin be good?
Chassidus explains that our sins – when properly repented for – enable us to reach levels of spirituality and self-refinement that we could never achieve otherwise. Our evil inclination and even our sins can essentially be very beneficial.
In fact, without an animal instinct, there is not much novelty and value in man's ability to live a wholesome and G-dly life. The following story will explain:
The Maggid of Jerusalem, once noticed that a student at the Yeshiva was absent for a few days. Upon the boy's return, the Rabbi inquired as to the reason of his absence. The boy, as it were, was extremely evasive. After a good amount of prodding the youngster finally relented – though he was resigned to the fact that the Rebbe would really never understand.
"You see," said the boy, "I missed Yeshiva so I could attend the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer finals. I will probably not be in Yeshiva tomorrow either, since it's the final day of the championship."
Rav Schwadron did not seem fazed. "Tell me," said Reb Shalom, furrowing his brow, "how does this game of soccer work? "Well," began the student, a bit surprised, "there are 11 players; their aim is to kick the ball into a large netted goal. . ."
"What's the big deal?" asked the Rebbe, "That seems rather easy." The boy laughed, "Rebbe, there is an opposing team whose job is to stop them from getting the ball into goal!" "Oh, now I understand," whispered the Rebbe.
"I'm curious, though," continued the Rabbi, "do the teams sleep there at night?" "Of course not" said the pupil, "why do you ask?" "You see, I'm wondering what's to stop your team from going there at night, when the other team is at home sleeping and kicking the ball into the goal and declaring victory."
"Oy Rebbe! You really don't get it! Anyone can kick a ball into an empty net. You can't score points unless the other team is there to try and stop you!"
"Ah!" cried Reb Shalom, "listen to what you just said. It is no big deal to do the right thing when the Yetzer Hara is not trying to stop you. It is only when there is strong resistance from the Yetzer Hara that you can score points."
This in a nutshell, is the story of the lofty human entity, who is created in the image and likeness of G-d. It is the reason for his dual personality and ongoing struggle with the animal inclination. It is likewise, the story of creation and the nearly 6,000 year battle between good and evil.
The knowledge and awareness of this G-dly designed phenomenon will certainly help us prevail and even grow from the challenge, much as the appreciation of light is increased when contrasted with darkness, with the coming of the righteous Moshiach.