Grow Up and Become a Better Person! (2012)
(A download option for this sermon in PDF can be found below.)
Some of you have probably heard of the Christian dogma of the initial sin, meaning: the existence of inherited, genetically ingrained evil in human beings. People are born in sin, and that defines them.
As worded in classic Calvinist theology: “Man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.” Also, the philosopher Kant wrote that man “is a slave of his passions and inclined to all evil”.
On the other side of the spectrum, in other circles, there is a widespread concept that humans are innately good. When children are born, their souls are pure like fresh fallen show with no concept of evil, greed or anger. But as they grow up, they become corrupted by society and infected with bad traits. Adherents of this thought are baffled to hear the findings of research. When the rates of violence were measured over the course of people’s life spans, it became clear that the most violent stage of life is… NOT later in life, when people have been longer exposed to an evil, corrupting society, NOT even at the notorious age of adolescence, but around the age of 2!!!
Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker writes: “A typical toddler […] kicks, bites, hits, and gets into fights with peers, but after “the terrible twos” the rate of physical aggression goes steadily down over the course of childhood”. The new prevailing insight is now that children do not learn aggression; they learn not to be aggressive.
Is the Christian dogma of people being innately evil then correct? That cannot be right either, because clearly many people behave ethically in most cases and are capable of selfless acts of charity. Noble concepts such as righteousness, fairness, kindness and benevolence are also engraved in our conscience... So, there must be two inborn sides to people’s nature.
Judaism acknowledges and names both these sides within human beings. Each person, according to Judaism, is born with two sides, two drives inside himself: The Yēṣer ha-Tobh (a good inclination) and the Yēṣer ha-Ra` (a negative force).
The art of growing and evolving to a higher level is to learn –throughout our entire lives– how to deal with our negative drive and how to channel it, so it does not take hold of us. Controlling the Yēṣer ha-Ra` does not make us boring softies, but it does make us worthier and happier people, more emotionally balanced, and more in control of our lives. However, it does require training and perseverance, a constant process of self-reflection and self-improvement. That is what these last ten days and especially Yom Kippur are all about.
No one here is perfect, and that’s okay, but we can all become ever better and happier people; a little bit more, each day. It is a tricky process though. This Yēṣer ha-Ra` is playing a trick on us. Or, not to personify our evil inclination, I should say: “We are constantly playing a trick on ourselves. One of these tricks is: When two people do something bad to each other, even if the harm is equal, each person tends to rate his/her own action as not-so-bad, understandable-under-the-circumstances, excusable, while the other person’s action is perceived as much worse than one's own. It is extremely hard for people to actually recognize their own mistakes.
The psychologist Baumeister, who studied numerous perpetrators of destructive acts, from rather innocent to very severe ones, found that no one thought that they had done anything wrong. In our widdūy -our confession- we pray: Ashamnu, Baghadnu, Gazalnu (we sinned, we cheated, we stole… etc.) Only on a rare occasion do we say: Ashamti, Baghadti, Ganavti (I… sinned, I cheated, I stole…)
Of course it is for a good reason the prayers are formulated the way they are! It is very important that we are not just concerned about our own soul’s growth, our own self-improvement, but about the conduct and destiny of the entire Jewish people. We should feel responsible for each other. Therefore, we also need to look critically at what happens within the Jewish world at large and be bothered if there is wrongdoing or hypocrisy. That is why not looking critically at our Jewish communities or (let’s say) at Israeli society is not the answer. Whenever there is wrongdoing, we should see it, and we should feel upset because of it, and look for ways of improvement.
But, having said that, the hardest part is to acknowledge: I did such-and-such wrong, I am sorry about it, I hate that I did it, and I decide not to ever do this again. From now on, this is not part of my lifestyle any more.
Children learn to control their primal impulses when they grow up. This process should not stop with adulthood. We can keep growing spiritually and become even better people. If only we can recognize where our flaws are and make a conscious decision to change.
In these last moments of the Day of Atonement, let us all renew our dedication to God –Who is the ultimate Source of all that is good. Let us renew our resolution to be the best person we can be, which God-willing will be better than last year. May we improve ourselves and strengthen and inspire our communities and the people around us to reach higher levels.