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Jewish World Review
June 23, 2004
/4 Tamuz, 5764
The good, the bad and the human
By Amy H. Lederman
We're not meant to be angels, but …
I was five the year my brother became a Bar Mitzvah and it was the worst year of my life. For approximately six months preceding the Big Event, he was fussed over, shopped for, listened to and pumped up while I was relegated to the back burner of family life. One evening during dinner I took matters into my own hands and kicked him so hard under the table that he dropped the platter of chicken and potatoes, splattering our meal in every direction but the plates. The results were disastrous: my mother became hysterical, I was sent to my room without supper and my brother got even more attention.
Stunned by my behavior, my parents demanded to know why I kicked my brother. My answer was immediate and unwavering: "I didn't do it."
They were aghast. Not only had I misbehaved big time, but my naughtiness had sunk to an even lower level of bold-faced lying. "What do you mean you didn't do it?" my father asked incredulously.
"I didn't do it!" I cried emphatically." "BAD Amy did it!"
In my youthful mind, it was a simple as this: I played no part in the dinner disaster because I was a good girl. It was BAD Amy, the other girl who lived inside me, that had kicked my brother.
My five year-old answer was a very natural and human response to disconnect the "bad" parts of myself from the good ones. GOOD Amy would never kick her brother because that would mean that she was nasty, hostile and worst of all, a BAD girl.
When it comes to being good or bad, the rabbis of the Talmud talked as much about human nature as Freud, Oprah and Dr. Laura combined. In their discussions, they acknowledge that we are born with both good and evil instincts, but only acquire a need to be good as we mature. In somewhat confusing and paradoxical language, they describe the human instinct-for-bad as the inner force that drives us to be good. Sounds like rabbinic brain teaser? In some ways it is.
The key to this riddle is found in the rabbinic interpretation of the word "instinct" (or Yetzer in Hebrew). The Rabbis construed instinct to mean certain innate, essential drives, urges, or impulses that form the basis of the human soul. We are born with the "instinct" for both good and bad. The instinct-for-good is what makes us want to uphold G-d's will and laws by performing deeds of justice, compassion and righteousness. The instinct-for-bad is what drives us to promote our own well-being and strive for personal achievement and success. Both are deeply human and both are necessary for the physical and spiritual survival and perpetuation of humankind.
The Talmud teaches that the desire for sex stems from our instinct-for-bad; yet without it, we would not build a house, marry, have children or conduct a business. It is the sexual drive that makes us want to create and affirm life; it motivates us to fill the earth and establish our homes and our communities.
The Talmud also teaches that "the greater the man, the greater his evil inclination." Our human potential for greatness, our capacity to develop and generate new ideas and our ability to lead others are all linked to our sexual vitality (similar to Freud's theory linking the libido to human creativity).
The key is how we use our instinct-for-bad: When we harness, moderate and redirect our impulses to lie, cheat, steal, hurt others or disobey G-d's law, we elevate ourselves over the animals. In essence, how we use or refrain from using the bad in us is what enables us to be good and to be human
Why is the instinct-for-bad considered bad if it motivates us to do good? Because the source of our over-ambitiousness, excessive competitiveness, extreme self interest and disregard for the welfare of others is derived from the same energy that underlies our drive to create, make love and sustain ourselves on earth is also. (If you don't believe the rabbis, just think back a few years when we watched the saga of President Clinton unfold on national television. That was a case of the instinct-for-bad run amuck!)
Many years have passed since I first disowned my instinct-for-bad. To be honest, there are still times in my adult life that I want to sever the "bad" parts of me from the good, to renounce BAD Amy's impulses to lie, be unkind or unfair. It is comforting to know that Judaism does not expect me to only be good. Rather, it acknowledges outright that we are human beings because we have both good and bad within us. It is our choice alone to master the instincts we possess.
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JWR contributor Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist and freelance writer, professional educator, public speaker and attorney. To comment, please click here.
© 2004, Amy Hirshberg Lederman