Divine Impulses

Divine Impulses – Rosh HaShanah 5766 (2005)

Today is Rosh HaShanah, the birthday of the world. Amongst the many aspects of this season we celebrate — and ponder — is the nature of God’s creation. In particular, we reflect upon our own human nature, both as individuals and as a species.

One of the fundamental assumptions of Judaism — the thing that guides so much of our ethics — is the notion that humanity has been created in God’s image. Listen to the words of Torah:

And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, according to our likeness…” And God created the human in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female.

Why is this important? From our human-centric point of view, it gives us our rationale for the proper treatment of others. If each of us is formed in the image of God, then something of each of us is at least potentially God-like, and we ought to search out and cherish that reflection of the Holy One in each individual whenever we can.

If we recognize the Divine in each person, then perhaps we can treat them with the justice and mercy they deserve, and the mercy we hope the Divine rains down upon us.

There is a poetry to these thoughts, and as I say, they inspire much of our drive for ethics, much of our drive for social action.

However, if this was the only lesson to be learned from this notion — this radical proposition that every person is formed in God’s likeness — then that would be a sorry state for us as Jews. For when are we ever satisfied with a single answer to a question?

One obvious dilemma arises in the context of the horrific consequences of Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, we saw people at their best — and at their worst. We saw people venturing out into the fetid, flooded land to rescue others. And we saw people band into gangs, wreaking their power — and their frustration — upon their innocent neighbors. We saw people from around the country and around the world dig deeply into their resources and give what they could — and then give more. And we saw the white, privileged staff flown out of one hospital by helicopter while next door the black, impoverished patients were left to die.

Such times can be both elevating and demoralizing. Such negativity raises the question: how could people be made in the image of God and do such things?

The Rabbis pondered these questions millennia ago. They proposed that, as people, we have two impulses: the impulse for good, and the impulse for evil. The yetzer tov and the yetzer ra. In the most simplistic understanding, the yetzer tov inspires us to be good, generous and giving; the yetzer ra inspires us to be selfish, cynical and destructive.

Naturally, the Rabbis came up with a proof text to validate this theory. They noticed that in the Torah, the word va-yitzer, or “formed,” is written in a very unusual way in one place in Torah: the one place, it just so happens, where we read about the creation of humanity. In Genesis 2:7 we read:

Adonai fashioned a human — Va-yyitzer Adonai Elohim et-ha-adam, dust from the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.

Va-yyitzer Adonai Elohim et-ha-adam… In this one case, va-yitzer is spelled by doubling the letter yod, or “y”, not with the single yod the word is normally spelled with. A misspelling? A typo? Of course not. Rav Nachman ben Rav Hisda explains: The word va-yitzer is written with two yods to show that God created two inclinations, one tov and the other ra. After all, the word yetzer, or impulse, starts with the same letter — yod — as yitzer.

A neat bit of midrashic slight of hand, you might say. But this explanation raises another, more difficult question. As hard as it might be to accept that people are capable of the evil acts of assault, murder, looting, and racism that we saw after Hurricane Katrina, wouldn’t it be easier to say that such acts do not spring from our “Godly” nature, but rather from some darker, animalistic side?

Such a solution is tempting in the short run. It would be nice to say that God gave us the impulse to do good, and that the impulse to do bad was not part of the Divine One’s creation. How many times have we looked at the negative excesses of human behavior and said, “they’re acting like animals.” But — didn’t God create the animals too? Unlike some of our Christian brethren, we are not prepared to accept a Devil into our theology, so instead we must lay the responsibility for our yetzer ra squarely at the doorstep of the Creator. And there are only two ways to do this:

First, and for the Rabbis unacceptably, we could say that the yetzer ra represents a flaw in God’s creation. It is the dross that formed upon us after the fiery furnace of creation; the yetzer ra is the chaff that must be beat off from the wheat to yield the pure grain beneath.

The problem is that this presumes that God could not create us without a flaw; that somehow God was limited in the His ability to create. In this view, the yetzer ra is the unfortunate and unintended byproduct of creation.

No such notion could be acceptable to the learned ones, who envision a purpose behind every Heavenly act. So instead they searched further, taking the notion of yetzer ra even deeper, seeking out a richer complexity than simply black and white, good and evil.

In Ecclesiastes Rabba we read, “Were it not for the yetzer ra, nobody would build a house, marry or beget children.” This is the product of yetzer ra? The building of communities, the building of families, the very act of love itself? Clearly, some deep mystery is at hand.

If we abandon the limits of a literal translation of tov and ra, good and evil, we can begin to understand these two God-created impulses within us. Once we free ourselves to work in the metaphoric rather than the literal, we can see there are two impulses that are each potentially beneficial.

The first, the yetzer tov, is in fact the impulse for compassion, the impulse for healing, the impulse for sharing. When we reach out to others and offer them a hand up out of their troubles, we are heeding the yetzer tov. Do you feel the pull for teamwork? That’s the yetzer tov. Ready to go out of your way and give up a luxury so that someone else can sleep underneath a dry roof? yetzer tov.

But — do you feel that drive to succeed, to push forward on your own through obstacles that seem to be never-ending? That’s your yetzer ra. Are you ready to not just play on the team, but to lead it to victory? Let’s hear it for yetzer ra. When you see another oppressed, and the righteous indignation swells within you, you are feeling your yetzer ra.

One impulse to give, the other to get. One impulse to belong, the other to be independent. One impulse for mercy, the other for justice. We are blessed with the same aspects that we understand our Creator to have — justice and mercy. That Creator in Whose image we believe we are made.

Either impulse can be a power for good or a power for evil. It’s just so much easier to see how the abuse of yetzer ra can be evil: Instead of being self-confident, we become self-centered. Instead of seeking success, we seek domination. Instead of pursuing justice, we pursue vengeance. So it is no small wonder that we come to see the excesses of yetzer ra as evil.

It is not only yetzer ra that can be abused, however: the yetzer tov is equally vulnerable. How can the impulse to heal, to share, to demonstrate compassion be turned to the negative? Let me tell you a story.

Years ago I was a social worker charged with the responsibility of determining whether infants and toddlers were at sufficient risk from abuse and neglect so as to require them to be removed from their families. It was a challenging task, and at first I thought it would be those parents who abused their children — who fell to the excesses of yetzer ra — that would be the most difficult for me. But soon I learned that instead it was the parents who were so lost in their own world that they barely noticed their children that gave me the most difficulty. They had succumbed to the negativity of yetzer tov: of selfishly seeking and eliciting compassion to such an extreme that it was debilitating for both them and their infant. They were more difficult because there was no energy with which to engage them. At least those villains of the yetzer ra could be reached, shaken, and encountered. Working with the others was for me like trying to nail the proverbial jello to a tree. Face it: there are times when forgiveness is not called for. The Rabbis warn us to not be fooled by the person who always repents, and then goes outs and sins again. There are times when too much understanding does not bid the spirit to rise, but instead demeans it and reduces it to a weakness that debilitates.

So, what does this mean? We have seen that the Eternal One created us with the dual impulses that our Rabbis called tov and ra, but which I believe are more accurately called mercy and justice. The yetzer rachamim and the yetzer tzedek. Either one, when properly harnessed, can lead to the good; either one, when succumbed to, can lead to our downfall.

God did not give us the urge for good and the urge for evil, but rather the power to heal and the power to rise up. God shared the power of transformation with us in both its forms, along with the ability to choose how we will use it.

So, back to the question: Where was God in the aftermath of the Hurricane? In the essence of each of us, waiting to be awakened for the greater good. Which leads me to my final thought.

The Hurricane struck in a matter of a few hours, but destroyed the work of countless years. As moved as we all were — both individually and as a nation — to help relieve the pain wrought by that storm, it is clear that rebuilding the buildings, the communities, and the spirits of those affected is an effort that will take months and years, not days and weeks.

As a congregation, we have decided to adopt a Reform synagogue in the area as a sister: Congregation B’nai Israel of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They are a congregation of fifty families with whom we can partner in the rebuilding of their battered lives. This is a long-term project, one which will neither begin nor end quickly. But, like all things that last, it is sure to enrich our lives as we participate in the healing and rebuilding process.

Now is not the time to share the all details; but I will tell you that they are an historic congregation — 115 years old — and they have suffered a great deal as a result of the storm, even though they are 80 miles from the coast. And yet, despite their considerable challenges, they have already begun reaching out to the wider community to help. They exemplify the best of both impulses, and I believe we will benefit greatly from our relationship with our new “sister” congregation.

For now, I ask you to begin to think about how you can engage your yetzer tzedek — that impulse that the Rabbis told us was essential to build both homes and families — in the months to follow. Do not allow the magnitude of the challenge to overwhelm you, to rob you of the energy it takes to rebuild.

For this is the true lesson I wish to share with you today. We must each find that proper balance between mercy and justice if we are truly to be considered b’tzelem Elohim — made in the image of God. We must now, in these days of awe, look frankly back upon our shortcomings, resolve to change ourselves, and then look forward to a year of successes renewed. For then, and only then, can we offer this world — and each other — the healing and encouragement, the pat on the back from one yetzer and the kick on the tukkus from the other — that we each need to help mold our world into the prophet’s vision of peace and prosperity.

May this year be a year in which each of us finds the power of — and is empowered by — the Divine urges within us.

L’Shanah Tovah.

© 2005-2007 James F. Brulé