For more than six months, we have lived through the daily deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are fearful and angry. Negative energy is increasing being publicly manifested. The most important thing we can do to make the New Year a better year is to remember and believe that the Torah teaches that existence is good; and indeed bad things of despair are connected to good things of hope; and thus can be overcome if we have the proper perspective.
In an article I wrote in the Journal of Dharma (January-March 2005) I stated: Some people are optimistic and some others are pessimistic. Some are hopeful and positive while some are despairing and negative about life and everything that surrounds it. A basic teaching of Judaism is that optimism, hope and a positive outlook are Mitsvot (Jewish religious duties).
The natural world is neither fundamentally a place of suffering, pain, cruelty and sorrow, nor is the human world basically evil: a community filled with lust, violence and greed. Nature is good. Human society or history is improvable. Each individual’s personal world can be good and improvable if he or she makes it so. Here are some examples of Jewish teachings of positive affirmation applied to nature, and personal psychology.
The first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis describes God’s creation of the universe in seven stages (days). Six times the Torah (first five books of the Bible) reports God’s evaluation of the stages of creation, “God saw that ‘X’ was good” (1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, and 1:26). After the creation of human beings the Torah says: “God saw everything He had made and beheld it was very good” (1:31). What makes this stage of creation “very good”?
According to the Rabbis, with the creation of human beings, God introduced into our world creatures with free will. But, in order for them to choose, God had to create both positive and negative realities to provide for their choices: good and evil, reward and punishment, happiness and suffering, birth and death, co-operation and competition, etc.
Since Judaism teaches that people are basically good, most people will use their free will to make positive choices most of the time. Thus, even with the introduction of negative forces and elements into the world, everything will be ‘very good’ because a ‘good’ world lacking creatures who can exercise free will is not that good.
Most of the teachings of Rabbinic Judaism from the 1st to the 6th centuries are gathered together in the Talmud or in various Midrash collections. In the Midrash Rabbah to Genesis chapter 9 there are a number of glosses of what makes the world ‘very good’. Most of the interpretations involve the introduction of a negative or challenging aspect of life. So Rabbi Samuel ben Rabbi Isaac says ‘very good’ alludes to the angel of life vis-à-vis the angel of death.
The joy of children and grandchildren is much greater than the inevitability of illness and death (which is sometimes also a cure for painful decay). The fact that we will get old, infirm and then die does not negate or overwhelm all the joys in life: a limited life teaches us to do good now.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish holds that ‘very good’ refers to a kingdom of heaven and a kingdom of earth. The material world does not contradict, subvert or negate a spiritual holy life. The material world does give us the opportunity to make ordinary things holy.
According to Rabbi Huna, ‘very good’ refers to happiness and suffering. You can’t have one without the other. Better to love and suffer a loss than not to love at all. In the same way Rabbi Simeon ben Abba opines that ‘very good’ refers to God’s bounty and to God’s punishment (i.e., moral acts should have consequences in this world). Further, Rabbi Ze’ira says: ‘very good’ refers to Paradise and Purgatory (i.e., moral acts also should have consequences in the world to come).
All of these Rabbis, thus, point to different aspects of human experience to illustrate the idea that the negative aspects of reality do not determine what reality really is. They are not the norms but the challenges necessary to enable us to have free choice. By choosing to do good we make the world ‘very good’.
Indeed, many of our wild inclinations that can lead us into evil can also, if they are tamed by Torah’s moral discipline lead us to great achievements.
Thus, Rabbi Samuel says: ‘good’ refers to the inclination toward good and very good refers to the inclination toward evil. Can the inclination toward evil be very good? Yes! If not for the inclination toward evil no man would build a house, marry, or beget children as it says, “excelling in work is due to a man’s rivalry with his neighbor” (Ecclesiastes 4:4).
The Rabbis understood that life would be easier without temptation. They also realized that without trials and temptations we would not grow beyond our inner capacities. Thus, Satan – the tempter – is described in the book of Job as an angel/agent of God. (Job 1:6). Without opportunity and temptation to sin we would not have the ability to choose good.
For, as God tells Cain, the first murderer, “Sin crouches at the doorway” (Genesis 4:7). We always have a choice. Rivalry and competition can lead to excelling or to destroying. The “evil” impulse (yetzer) is not inherently evil, but if untamed by a moral code (e.g., Torah) it easily leads us to do evil. Sex with love and marriage is good. Sex without love and marriage is not good. So also, extramarital sex or forced sex is evil.
Our biology is simply the Yetzer or the yetzer haRah (the evil/wild impulse). Our yetzer HaTov (the good/tamed impulse) is our morally learned response that makes us into creatures in the Image of God. God sometimes does not favor us in order to challenge us and thus, enable us to grow stronger in taming our wild infantile urges.
We are not told why God favored Abel, and not Cain. It is not important because throughout life we will have to deal with failure and rejection. Often we succeed in love, in business, in sports, etc., and sometimes we fail or are rejected. Cain deals with rejection by blaming and killing his rival. Cain takes his rejection as a personal insult.
If Cain was more enlightened he could react less passionately and avoid hatred and murder. Even better, by understanding how suffering defeat and loss could be beneficial, Cain could make another offering, at another time, or in another way.
Many people think that nature is loaded with harmful and annoying creatures. In opposition to this view we find the statement “Very good refers to all those creatures deemed unnecessary and useless in this world like flies, gnats, etc., who have their allotted task in the scheme of creation (Midrash Exodus Rabbah).
In opposition to those who saw a woman as a major source of defilement, sin, or the cause for original sin there is the statement “Very good refers to the creation of women,” i.e., an anti-celibacy and anti-misogynist view (Midrash on Psalms).
In opposition to the view that renunciation of the pleasures of this world is the best way to elevate one spiritually there is the statement “Very good indicates that God did not procrastinate but ecstatically enjoyed creation immediately, for God took pride and pleasure in creation” (Midrash Tanhuma).
Thus, God is both an effective creator, and a joyful, enthusiastic, and proud creator; and us humans, who were created in the image of God, need to always remember that.