The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Message on Yom Kippur

[This drashah was given on Sept. 25, 2023]

We human beings are strange creatures. At our best, we are capable of extraordinary acts of kindness, selfless acts that place us, as the Psalm said, “m’at mei-elohim, little lower than the angels.” And at our worst, we’re capable of horrifying acts of cruelty and hatred. To say that, at those times, we descend to the level of beasts is an insult to the beasts.  The truth is that we’re often much worse.

How is that we human beings have such an incredibly wide moral range? How is that the human species – sometimes even the same individual human being– is capable of such extremes of good and evil? The question isn’t just an academic one. It goes to the heart of our practical work on Yom Kippur, the work of trying to change ourselves for the better, to do teshuvah. Before you can attempt to repair your house, you have to have some sense of how it was constructed in the first place. The same is true of a self. Before we can begin to work on ourselves, we have to have some vision of how we are put together morally.

So how are we put together morally? What is the nature of this strange thing, the human self, that is capable of being both so good and so bad?

 As you might imagine, the Jewish tradition has had quite a lot to sat on this question. Let me start with one traditional answer. Some very ancient voices in rabbinic literature explained our moral extremes, the wide divide between our best and our worst behavior, as the result of an ongoing battle between two opposite forces within us. Basically, they divided human nature in two. They taught that, morally, to be human is not one thing, but two things. On the one hand, we have a yetzer hatov, an inclination to good, and on the other, we have a yetzer hara, an inclination to evil, and they are radically distinct, with no common ground between them. Our moral struggles are between those two internal inclinations, which constantly pull us in opposite directions. The only question is which one of them will win at any given moment.

If we think of human nature in that way, as a competition between two inner impulses that have nothing to do with each other, what will our process of teshuvah, of growth and change look like? How will we attempt to make ourselves better people?

In that case, working on ourselves will mean taking one side in that inner struggle, committing ourselves to support our yetzer hatov in its battle against our yetzer hara. It will mean struggling to reenforce the former and defeat the latter, trying to cultivate our own capacity for good by suppressing our capacity for evil. That is how many of the ancient rabbis talked about the struggle to do teshuvah, to repent. They spoke about it as an internal war against our yetzer hara, in favor of our yetzer hatov, a kind of pitched battle between the good and evil in ourselves, in which we take the side of the good.

Personally, I have always had a hard time thinking of myself, or other people, as being built that way. It has never made much sense to me to think that human nature is really two natures at war with one another. Partly that’s because it has never been clear to me exactly where the dividing line between the two would be. When I look inward, it’s hard for me to see exactly where the good part of me would end and the bad part would begin. There doesn’t seem to be any bright line separating them. Instead, they seem all mixed up and intertwined, not two separate selves but two ingredients of the same self, both parts of the same me.

Plus, that vision of two separate inclinations at war with one another doesn’t help me very much at a practical level. I have never had much luck defeating my inner demons by going to war against them, trying to dispossess them and expel them. Whenever I launch a frontal attack against them, they just disappear into the bushes of my inner life. Then later, when my back is turned, they catch up with me and overtake me from behind. Treating my inner demons like a foreign army that I can defeat in open combat and expel from my soul doesn’t work because they don’t fight like a foreign army. They fight more like a domestic underground, like home-grown resistance fighters who know my inner terrain better than I do.

I think the notion that we can just go to war against our yetzer hara and expel it from our souls is based on a misconception about how we human beings are put together. At the end of the day, the reason why my good side can’t defeat my bad side in open combat is that my good side and my bad side are not really separate things in the first place. They are not polar opposites at all, but much more intertwined.

Let me give you an example of how good and bad can overlap more than we think. Think of love and hate. It’s true that, morally – at the level of behavior – they are opposites. When we judge people’s behavior, we list acts of love and acts of hate on opposite sides of the ledger. But psychologically – at the level of our inner life – they’re not really opposites at all. They are more like estranged siblings, which share much of the same DNA. Both love and hate are deep forms of connectedness, deep forms of emotional investment in an other.  Psychologically, the opposite of love would be indifference, apathy. After all, the opposite of caring is not caring. But haters, like lovers, care a lot. They invest a great deal of emotional energy in the people that they hate, just as people who love invest a lot of emotional energy in the people that they love. Both care deeply and intensely. It’s true that one kind of caring heals and the other destroys. One kind raises us almost to the level of the angels and the other kind makes us worse than animals. But both are the opposite of apathy. Although they are moral opposites, they are psychological siblings. And if you doubt that, just think about how, under certain circumstances, love can turn into hate.

So I don’t think that the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov are two completely distinct things after all. I don’t believe that human beings are built like hybrid cars that have two separate power trains that run on different sources of energy. I think that the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara are powered by the same emotional impulses, even though they take us in opposite moral directions. Think of electricity. We depend on it to keep our homes warm in the winter. But it can also kill us if we get caught in a lightning storm. Electricity can do good and it can do bad. But at the deepest level, it is not two different things. It is one thing.

There also are many voices in the Jewish tradition – particularly among the kabbalists and the hasidic masters – that speak of human nature in that way, in more holistic terms. They teach that the yetzer hara is not some foreign object that we need to expel from our souls. It is not an enemy that we need to defeat. It is just a twisted and distorted version of our yetzer hatov.

Let me offer you an example of one of those teachings by Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, the Meor Einayim. It makes this point by way of a radical, even shocking interpretation of the  Torah. It is a teaching about hesed, love, which the hasidic masters taught is the highest human virtue.

According to the Jewish mystics, the reason why the world exists is hesed. God created the world so that there would be something else beside God, something other, so that God would have the opportunity to love. The existence of the world itself is an expression of God’s love. And through our love, our hesed, we align ourselves with God, and bring a little more of God’s love into this broken world.

But the Meor Einyam and other hasidic masters recognized that hesed can also take other forms, evil forms.  Some of the worst things that we do as human beings are not the opposite of hesed. They are its dark shadow. They are twisted and distorted forms of it.

In Leviticus chapter 20, verse 17, the Torah talks about the sin of incest, a kind of sexual exploitation that can and does destroy people’s lives. The Torah condemns that kind of exploitation using one of the strongest words that it has, a word that appears only a few times in the Hebrew Bible, apparently because it was reserved for only the most horrifying sins. That word is “hesed.”

Scholars of biblical Hebrew tell us that the word “hesed” as it appears in this verse, as a term of condemnation, is completely different from the word “hesed” that we have been talking about. One refers to moral depravity and the other refers to love. Though the two words are spelled the same and pronounced the same, they have nothing to do with each other. They are homonyms, just like homonyms that we have in English. Think of “bear” in the sense of “to bear” or carry a weight versus “bear” in the sense of a hairy animal that lives in the woods.

But the Me’or Einayim did not see it that way. He believed that the word “hesed” in this verse, hesed as moral depravity, and hesed in the sense of love are in fact the same Hebrew word. Why would the Torah use the same word to describe our most godly human attribute and also to describe one of the most awful human acts of violation? According to the Me’or Einayim, it was to teach us that the impulse that most closely binds us to God can also be a source of violence and destruction when it gets distorted and deformed. The same electricity that keeps us warm in the winter can also burn our houses down. Or to say the same thing in reverse, our most evil impulses are, at their root, distorted forms of our best impulses.

When we look at the world around us, we see lots of examples of distorted hesed as a source of evil. Let me give you one example. It’s the bigotry and xenophobia and hatred of the other that has always plagued humanity, and that seems to be particularly prevalent at this moment in human history.

I think the Me’or Einyam would say that bigotry and xenophobia, even at their worst and most destructive, are distorted forms of hesed, of love. Hesed, in its pure form, flows outward. We start with love end empathy for those near us, our family and community, and then our love– by its very nature –overflows those boundaries and encompasses those outside our circle as well. That is what love naturally does. And that is what the Torah tells us that love ought to do. But in xenophobic communities, love doesn’t work that way. It starts from the same place, from the deep human need to feel connected, to bind oneself to others, to overcome aloneness through empathy and identification. But instead of flowing outward, beyond the immediate circle, it stops at the boundaries of the circle. Beyond that point, love gets flipped into its mirror image, hate. In other words, love and empathy for those inside is at the expense of those outside. People cherish those inside their circle, those like themselves, by demonizing those outside. This kind of love, a deformed love, protects itself by building walls of hate. As a result, it causes terrible suffering and destruction.

Let me give you another example, one that I have talked about before. This one is probably closer to home. It’s about an ordinary, garden-variety sin that all of us commit from time to time: the sin of lashon hara, the evil tongue, or bad-mouthing. Our liturgy on Yom Kippur mentions this sin over and over, precisely because it is so common. It too, I think, arises out of a distorted, damaged form of hesed.

Why do we feel tempted to badmouth other people? It starts, I think, with that same impulse to connect, to transcend our aloneness, to enter into a relationship with an other. That’s what people who commit lashon hara are usually trying to do. They use gossip as a kind of currency to get others to listen to them, so that they can feel heard and acknowledged, so that they can feel connected. Or perhaps they feel that, by tearing someone else down, they will make themselves look better by comparison, more worthy of befriending. In either case, lashon hara is an expression of that fundamental human need to reach beyond oneself, to transcend one’s aloneness, to be connected to an other. In that sense, it is a form of hesed. But it is a damaged and distorted form of hesed. And so it doesn’t work. Instead of bringing people together, it pushes them apart. Instead of building trust, it erodes it.

It is not just hesed – which the mystics called the highest human virtue – that we often twist into a sin. There are other sacred impulses – precious, God-like human instincts – that we distort as well until they turn destructive. The yearning to live lives of substance as images of God, to make some imprint in the world, can degenerate into acquisitiveness and greed. The impulse to present ourselves with dignity, to dress well for instance, as an expression of respect for our own humanness, can degenerate into an obsession with appearances. I could offer many other examples, and I am sure that you could too. But the overall point is that our yetzer hara, our impulse to evil, is not entirely separate from our yetzer tov, our impulse to good. It is not a foreign enemy, with whom our better selves have nothing in common. Our good side and our bad side are fueled by the same deep human impulses. The worst in us is often a distortion of the best in us.

So what are the practical implications of this way of thinking about human nature? If our good side and our bad side are not alien to each other, but are more like estranged twins, what does that mean for the work that we are called upon to do on Yom Kippur, the work of trying to make ourselves better?

As I mentioned earlier, I find that trying to defeat my yetzer hara, to pound it into submission – as if it were some entirely foreign thing –doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t make the demons go away. But if, instead of trying to suppress the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, we try to understand those parts of ourselves, to recognize that, even in our worst impulses, there is something worth redeeming, something worth rechanneling in positive directions, we might have more success. In other words, instead of beating ourselves up over our mistakes, we might do better to begin by having some compassion on ourselves.

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, another great hasidic master, taught that the process of teshuvah, of repentance, is a process of uncovering the sacred sparks within our sins, and redeeming those sparks. When we have done wrong, instead of trying to disown the sin, we ought to look into ourselves and try to understand where the sin came from. Instead of punishing ourselves, we ought to ask ourselves: Why did I do that? What was the inner impulse that drove me to do it? And once we have identified that impulse, we will almost always see that it was not entirely bad, that there was – as Rebbe Nahman said – a sacred spark within that impulse that is worth trying to dust off and repair. At the heart of the destructive impulse, we will find a better, purer version of it that would push us in a positive direction if we could cleanse it and redeem it.

So this is Rebbe Nahman’s practical advice for us on Yom Kippur. If we have been trying to connect with others in destructive ways, let us re-channel that same impulse in a positive direction. If we have been trying to assert our human dignity in harmful ways, ways that diminish others, let us take that same impulse and re-channel it in positive ways. Instead of trying to defeat our evil side, to banish it, let us try to redeem it, to raise it up, to harness its underlying energy to do what that energy was originally meant to do, to do good. I think that’s good and useful advice.

We human beings are strange creatures. As a species – and even as individuals – we are capable of extraordinary acts of goodness and extraordinary acts of evil.  It is not because we have two selves inside us, a good self and a bad self, a Jekyll and a Hyde. Rather, it is because the basic human impulses that make us images of God – our yearning to form deep connections and to build families and communities, our yearning to make meaning, to live purposefully, to live lives of dignity and honor and substance, impulses that, at their best, bind us more closely to each other and to God – can manifest themselves in diametrically-opposite ways. At their best, they can make us little lower than the angels. But because those impulses are so powerful to start with, when they are distorted and deformed, they can do tremendous damage as well.

On Yom Kippur and throughout the year, the key is to look honestly into our own hearts and to see how we have allowed our most sacred yearnings – our yearnings for connectedness and dignity and meaning – to be misdirected.  And then our work is to return those sacred yearnings back to their pure form, their original form, so that they can make our lives a source of blessing. May that work bring us joy, and bind us to each other in the year ahead.