parasha

Parashat Noah – 5780

The Good Person and Evil Inclination

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

This week’s Torah portion, Noah, is the second portion of the Torah.  Here, we transition from the universal story of creation to the historic story of the Jewish nation.  The first part of the portion deals with the story of the flood.  Humanity had deteriorated to norms of corruption and immorality so the Creator of the Universe decided to start the whole story anew.  A flood washed over the world and erased all of civilization.  Only one righteous person, Noah, survived along with his family and representatives of all different living creatures.  They embarked on a new path, one that held renewed hope.

After the flood, G-d promised that there would never be another:

“…and the Lord said to Himself, "I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done.

(Genesis 8, 21)

The reason behind G-d’s promise is surprising: “for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”. Is man’s evil inclination, which accompanies him from the time of his youth, the reason for a forgiving attitude? Actually, some earlier commentators explain that this is a reservation, not an explanation: Despite the imagination of man’s heart being evil from his youth – there will not be another total and severe punishment like the flood.  Other commentators did see this as the explanation: Being that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, one must take his natural tendencies into consideration and not punish him so severely.

In any case, the image that rises from this verse is certainly not complimentary to man.  Already from his youth, we infer from the verse, he tends to make bad choices and do bad deeds.  As Jews of faith who see the Torah as G-d’s words to man, we must honestly ask ourselves: Is this how we would describe the human race?

The question is made even more complicated when we recall another verse from this week’s Torah portion: “…for in the image of G-d He made man”.  No matter how we choose to interpret this, we have to admit that this is a very positive description of the human race.  Man is similar to G-d, and in some core aspect, is a reminder of His eternal and perfect goodness.  So how can we negotiate these two contradictory descriptions? On the one hand, man was created in the image of G-d, but on the other hand, man’s inclinations are evil from the time of his youth. Is man good or bad?

Actually, if we examine the verse precisely, it does not say that man is bad, but that he has an inclination which is bad.  Man has desires, aspirations, hopes, and plans.  He tries incessantly to bring these internal ideas to fruition.  The implementation of man’s desires and aspirations is the creative process he is constantly involved with.  First man imagines the ideal situation, then he looks at reality and tries to change or advance it toward that ideal image.  This is the process of fruitful creativity that motivates humanity toward many actions – some better and some worse.

When the Torah teaches us that man is created in the image of G-d, it means that man is essentially good.  His desires always stem from a vision of completeness and beauty.  But there is an “inclination” that exists in the process of creativity that tends to the evil. Even when we want to realize a positive desire, we have an impulse to look for the easy and quick way out, one that doesn’t necessarily take everything into consideration, and therefore fails.

Evil inclination is not the essence of man, but it is always there.  If we don’t acknowledge and recognize it, we will fall into the trap it sets.  Even when we want to bring good and positive ideas to realization, like those that stem from our being created “in the image of G-d”, we must remember that the creative process for goodness is complicated, and that we have the tendency to fall into the trap of comfort and ease rather than investing in quality that leads to a happy life.

 

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