The other day, I asked several youngsters which is the most important species on earth. One raised his hand and suggested that we, humans, are most important. Another objected and said, that we are the worst offenders on the planet. Humans, she insisted are a horrible species.
I was taken aback at the negative self-concept bred into this young lady at such a tender age. What did this innocent girl do to deserve to think that she and everyone she knows are horrible? Teaching children that humans are the worst species on the planet will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. How can a child feel good about herself if she is taught that she has no redeeming value? The rabbit and even the insect have more value than this beautiful child?
I patiently explained that humans can do horrible things, but that doesn’t mean humans are horrible. There is a huge difference between those two statements.
Crown of Creation
The Torah teaches that humans are the crown of creation. G-d made Adam and Eve after everything else because, like kings, they were meant to enter the universe after the table was set and the world was prepared.
The Torah also tells us that humans were created last because if we choose to, our behavior can be more depraved than any other species. But that is our behavior, not us.
Here is the rub. The only reason our behavior can be more depraved than any other species is that G-d granted us the gift of free choice. When a predator beast kills, it doesn’t choose to kill, it follows its instinct. When humans kill, they make a choice. And that makes it immoral.
The fact that G-d gave us free choice indicates how special we are. The Torah teaches that G-d made us in His image. We aren’t a depraved species. We are a holy species made in G-d’s image. In what way are we reflective of G-d? The commentaries offer several opinions. Among them are the fact that we have the most advanced intelligence on earth. Another is that we were given free choice. The only other being with free choice, is G-d. In that sense, we are His spitting image.
Free choice is a double-edged sword. It can turn us into the best species in creation and it can turn us into the worst species in creation. If we choose to behave morally and do good, we receive credit. Animals, plants, and even angels don’t receive credit for their good deeds. They do what their creator programmed them to do. We receive credit for our good deeds because we choose to do them. This is the consequence of free choice.
The flipside is that when we behave inappropriately, when we are cruel, wicked, craven, selfish, lustful, or greedy, we receive the blame. At that point, our behavior is the worst in all of creation.
So, Adam and Eve were created last because they are the crown of creation and because they can behave as the lowest of creation. But their ability to behave like the lowest is a symptom of being the highest. Because we have free choice, our actions can be immoral. Cows are not irresponsible if they contribute to Global Warming. We are. Cows don’t have a choice, we do.
The Common Mistake
When we behave immorally, we should not say, I am bad. We should say, I behaved badly. If we believe we are bad, we will continue to behave badly. After all, that is what bad people do. If we believe that we are inherently good, veritably a part of G-d, but have behaved in a way that is beneath us, we will be motivated to improve.
Politicians and pundits often miss this critical point. No matter what their pet project is, they rarely speak of what needs to be done. They speak of how terrible we are. Sometimes they speak of our guilt for simply being. If you are a white male, the cultural narrative today is that you are implicitly racist and bad. You don’t even need to do anything to be a racist. You are racist by dint of your existence.
People who talk this way think that people who are guilted into accepting blame, will turn around and accept responsibility. But that goes against the grain of human nature.
It is our nature to live up to expectations. If we teach a generation that they are destroyers of the environment, they will live up to our expectation and destroy the environment. If we tell people that they are discriminatory and racist, they will prove us right and behave this way.
Better to tell people that they are better than that. If we trust them enough to put them on a pedestal, we empower them to remain on the pedestal and then climb even higher. If we tell them that the pedestal is beyond them, they will turn around and prove us right.
Make Me Holy
In this, we take a page from G-d’s book. Every day, the Jewish people stand before G-d and proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts.” What does G-d do with all these superlatives? He places one on His own head and places two on the heads of his children. He turns the compliment we paid to Him, back on us. If that is not astounding, I don’t know what is.
Do we deserve the title “holy” that we attributed to G-d? Is our behavior holy? That is not the critical question. The critical question is, can we behave in a holy manner? If our behavior doesn’t reflect the compliment that He bestowed upon us, it soon will. We are inherently holy and intrinsically G-dly. Sometimes our behavior gets away from our intrinsic selves. By reminding us that we are slivers of G-d, intrinsically holy like G-d, He empowers us to be holy.
Not only that, G-d tells us that when we behave in a holy way, when we decide to behave responsibly, when we choose to emulate G-d in our daily lives, G-d becomes holy. “I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.” Amidst means in the midst of—within each of us individually. When we nourish our inner holiness to the point that we are internally permeated with goodness, altruism, love, and rectitude, G-d becomes Holy.
Imagine that. There is nothing holier than G-d, yet G-d says that there is one way in which He can become holier than He already is. That is when we make ourselves holy. This is not only about G-d trusting us enough to place us on a pedestal and empower us to remain there. This is G-d putting Himself in our hands. If you will be holy, you will make me holy. That is G-d’s vote of confidence in each of us.
This is a vote of confidence that we must give our fellow and especially our youth. We need to stop tearing civilization down and start building them up. We ought to stop demonizing and criticizing and start motivating, empowering, inspiring, and incentivizing. Let’s stop teaching our children how bad we are. Let’s teach them how good we are and how much better we can be.