Mastering Our Nature – Noah 5779

D'var Torah | Genesis

Philosophers and theologians have long debated the essence of human nature. The third century BCE Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu thought that man was naturally evil. Augustine and subsequent Christian theology assumed that man was tainted by original sin and, therefore, was inherently evil. Buddhism teaches that evil has its roots in human desire that must be controlled and disciplined. Even the Torah seems to assume that human nature is bent towards evil when it says (Genesis 6:5): “…every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.”


While Rabbi Yeudha HaNasi and Antoninus Marcus Aurelius debate whether the evil inclination arrives at conception or at birth, they both agree that it is innate (Sanhedrin 91b). Similarly, an early rabbinic text concludes that the good inclination arrives only at the age of majority but the evil inclination was present from the beginning of life (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 16). Even Maimonides (Laws of Substitution 4:13) intimates that the Torah (Leviticus 27:10) penalizes the would-be substitute of animals dedicated to sacrifice in order to train people to take their pledges seriously and that the penalty would prevent people from giving in to the natural urge to get away with whatever they can. Such is human nature.


Yet the Torah also affirms that people can conquer their urges (Genesis 4:7): “Sin crouches at the door; its urge is to you, yet you can be its master.” And according to the Talmud (Hullin 4a), given a choice between eating kosher meat and non-kosher meat, a Jew would choose to eat the kosher meat!


Any seeming contradiction is easily resolved by the knowledge that although people may have a tendency to do wrong, like the generation of the Flood and like Noah himself (Genesis 2:20ff), that very tendency can be tamed and overcome. Through the study and observance of the laws of the Torah, human nature can be altered and human beings can be the rulers of their instincts rather than their slaves. This is the challenge before us all.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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