Choosing the Moral Path

Last Thursday I was meeting with several community rabbis and a scholar as part of an AIPAC event, and after several depressing conversations about the Middle East, Israel, and Syria, I found myself asking out loud, “so is there any hopeful analysis?”  “Well….” Came the response.  Not exactly what I was hoping for.

As we in prayer this evening we hope to be embraced in God’s shelter of peace and protection following yet another week of horrifying events.  Short on the heels of a time when families gather more than anytime of the year, we find ourselves as a community struggling to see a positive outlook on the world.

Soon we’ll rise for the Barchu, and we’ll announce to God that we are ready for prayer.  But are we?  Are we really ready to pray after this past week, or month?

Just after the latest mass shooting, number 335 this year, bringing the total deaths from guns to over 12,000.  Twelve thousand lives.

In light of these statistics, people seemed of two opinions.  Pray or act.  While many congress people who hold the actual key to a solution for this epidemic, most of them encouraged prayer.  We will keep those victims in our thoughts and prayers, but we also need to act.  In response to calls for prayer, the cover of the New York Daily News this morning read, in large, bold print: “God isn’t fixing this”.  Which is true, when we pray for peace in Judaism, we are praying for God to accompany us as we seek to repair the world with God, not simply leaving our broken work up to God to fix for us.  God provides the courage, we provide the action.

In response to my question about the Barchu, for me the answer is no. I’m not quite ready to pray because with all of the violence and brokenness in our world, I’m struggling to find the morality, the goodness in people, that will inspire us to create peace.

Where is the morality in our world?

One might think that I should have phrased that question, where is the humanity in our world?  Yet I question whether humanity and morality are inextricably linked.  Humans can and have existed for a very long time and while, like MLK said, the arc of history always bends toward justice, (women’s rights, civil rights, marriage equality) we seem to choose immorality each step along the way.  From the crusades, to slavery, barbaric wars to harsh imprisonment and interrogation, the nuclear bomb to the Holocaust – humans consistently subjugate each other to further their own gain.  Why can’t we all simply live and work together in peace and create a world without want, need or suffering?

Judaism teaches that we are each born with two competing inclinations, a yeitzer ha-ra, the evil inclination and a yeitzer ha-tov, the good inclination.  In theory, the purpose in life is to foster the yeitzer ha-tov and suppress the yeitzer ha-ra in order to literally have good win over evil.  Yet even our Torah is filled with too many examples of people following their yeitzer ha-ra and acting only out of self interest, which leads us, unsurprisingly, to this weeks Torah portion and the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son who was sold into slavery and eventually saved us all from famine.

We could blame the victim in this story: His brothers sold him into slavery because Joseph was arrogant and lazy and his father fueled his brothers anger by favoring him, however that line of thinking is no more appropriate than blaming the victims in the recent tragedies.  Joseph’s brothers got angry and jealous, and rather than deal with their feelings they decided the only option was to kill Joseph.  “Here comes the master of dreams!  Let us kill him and throw him into one of these pits and say, ‘A wild animal has devoured him.’  Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams![1]”  Again, they decided to kill their brother.  To take the life of another human being because they were frustrated.  To follow their yeitzer ha-ra.  Pure evil.

Logically, this makes sense.  They were having a collective problem and together they decided to rid themselves of this problem.  No different than any other murder that has been committed before since.  Following the way humanity has often progressed.  So why would the Torah include such a horrific story?

Perhaps to teach us that without effort people will always instinctively follow their yeitzer ha-ra, and we must look deeper to find morality, and learn to all become better people.  We find the morality in this story, albeit in a small amount, as the plot thickens.

Reuven, Joseph’s oldest brother, heard what his brothers were plotting, and he decided to “save Joseph from their hands.”  Don’t do this, he told them, don’t actually kill him, put him into a pit instead, there at least he’ll die without our blood literally on our hands.  Sensing that perhaps we should follow our yeitzer ha-tov, another brother, Judah felt the courage to speak up, “How will it profit us if we kill our brother?  Let us sell him instead, then our hand will not be on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh.

While they still didn’t do the right thing in the end, they still sold their own brother into slavery, at least they didn’t kill him.  In a sea of human nature both Reuven and Judah decided to listen to a different voice, a voice of morality, their yeitzer ha-tov.  Goodness.  And our rabbis will eventually conclude that one good deed leads to another.  Morality must be sowed somewhere and nurtured for justice to grow.

With all of the evil actions surrounding us, we must find a way to nurture and listen to our yeitzer ha-tov, our good inclinations.  Every time we choose to be kind, from opening a door for someone, to donating food or money, to simply saying hello and smiling, we create a better world – a world filled with holiness and morality, instead of evil human nature.

Start now.  Think about the next 25 hours of Shabbat, and commit yourself to one good deed, large or small.  It could be calling someone who is sick, celebrating with a family member, giving tzedakah, teaching someone a skill, or even simply smiling more.  Once you know what you will do to make this a Shabbat of peace, stand as you are able, ready to pray, for the Barchu.

[1] Gen 37:21-27

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