Neither Optimistic Nor Pessimistic – Ki Tetze 5781

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Political philosophers are divided. Some, like Plato in his Laws and Jean Jacques Rousseau, both in his Social Contract and his Discourse, held that the earliest human societies were peaceful and cooperative. There was little competition since resources were plentiful. Altruism was the rule. And civilization flourished. Some, like Hobbes in his Leviathan, imagined the earliest societies to be battlegrounds in which egoistic human beings sought personal advantage resulting in life being “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” These two opposing views of civilization and of human nature persist to this day.


One is tempted to argue that the Torah comes down on the side of conflict and competition. After all, the Torah assumes that warfare is inevitable, expecting “When you go out to war against your enemies” (Deuteronomy 21:10). For the Torah, there is no question of whether there will be war; only when. And it is certain that there will be enemies to face. But to conclude that the Torah shares with Hobbes a dark view of humanity would be premature. Consider that before going into battle, Israelites were compelled to pursue a peaceful resolution (Deuteronomy 20:10). And even enemies had to be treated compassionately (Exodus 23:5).


The truth is that the Torah takes neither an optimistic view of human nature nor a pessimistic view. The Torah puts forward a pragmatic view of human nature. Human beings are capable of sinking to the depths of depravity but also capable of reaching the heights of saintliness. War, therefore, can be a possibility; but so too is kindliness. The Torah does not deny the fact that human beings sometimes fight. The Torah attempts to tame the impulse to fight (See Genesis 4:7) and to minimize the damage that results from fighting.


Here the Torah in particular and Judaism in general move from the descriptive (how human beings behave) to the prescriptive (how human beings ought to behave). It is not enough to simply recognize that humanity will, at times, resort to warfare. What is required is finding ways to limit – and perhaps eliminate – the possibility.




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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