Thursday, October 22, 2009

Noah and Self-Control

When Adam and Chava sinned in their first hours in the garden of Eden, it was a sin of passion. The allure and promise of a fruit that would make them into gods was something that they could not resist. And with this sin, the seeds of mankind's ultimate failure are sown. Cain kills Hevel in a fit of passion, and history spirals downward. Humanity seems controlled by its baser instincts, with desire and passion in control.

On Noah's release from the ark, the Torah talks of God's resolution to never destroy all of mankind again. "ויאמר ה' אל לבו..." "God said to his heart...." The sages (quoted by Rabbi Hirsch) point out that whenever a biblical figure who is a model of virtue speaks in his heart, it is in this mode 'to his heart'. In contrast, when evil men do so, it is בליבו, in his heart. In this first post-diluvian proclamation by God, the very wording is a lesson to humanity: make sure that your heart-seated passions are not the decisors of your actions. Let your emotions be subservient to the intellect.

This lesson is repeated in the three brothers. Shem, model of intellect, and Yaphet, representing aesthetics and beauty, the noble elements of our passions, are told by Cham, symbolic of the base passions, that their father has shamed himself. Noah's reaction is to curse Cham and make him the slave to Shem. Yaphet is blessed, but dwells only within the tent (the parameters and limits) of Shem.

The three brothers are embodied in every human being. We all have base passions, noble desires, and an intellect and spirit. It is our task in life to enslave our base passion to our intellect. Even our noble aesthetics must be tempered and used only within the limits that our intellect must set; otherwise, it is easy for the Yaphet that is within us to lead us to Cham. Our intellect is subservient to God's will, and allows us to use it to bring out the good and decent in all our other attributes.

This idea was articulated by Plato as well, in book  four of the Republic. The soul, says Plato, is triumverate, composed of three parts: the appetitive, the rational, and the spirited. The appetitive is the source of the base desires of mankind and society. The rational is the seat of wisdom and drives towards truth. The spirited is the source of "higher" desires, such as (platonic) love, honor, and victory. The ideal man has the rational controlling the appetitive with input from the spirited. The platonic republic contains these on a macro level: the king-philosopher is the rational, the auxiliary class (made up of soldiers and enforcers) is the spirited, and the worker class is the appetitive. By correctly applying the mastery of the one over the other, with the assistance of the third, individual and society can find the best way forward for private and public life.

(One distinction between the Republic and the Jewish ideal is the the purpose of society. According to Plato, society is a necessary tool to find the best result for each individual. Society is not an end in and of itself. However, the Jewish ideal is a nation, a כלל, serving God, in which the individual and the collective each have purposes and importance in and of themselves. Humanity is of a dual nature, as an individual and as a group, and each purpose provides sustenance to the other, and allows the completion of the other within itself. A Jewish society is nothing without individuals, but a Jewish individual is very little without his כלל.
There is nothing more noble than a person whose intellect controls his urges. In contrast, there is nothing more ignoble and pathetic than the opposite. And, looking back at a life mis-spent, nothing seems easier than to have lived it correctly. In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (an English playwright) tells the tale of a priest who lives a life guided by his passions. As he stands before a firing squad, "He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint."

As we look back at our actions, it seems so petty, a little self restraint and a bit of courage were all that it would have taken to turn a sinner into a saint. This sentiment is an echo of the talmud (Sukah 52a): לעתיד לבוא מביאו הקב"ה ליצר הרע ושוחטו בפני הצדיקים ובפני הרשעים, צדיקים" נדמה להם כהר גבוה ורשעים נדמה להם כחוט השערה, הללו בוכין והללו בוכין, צדיקים בוכין ואומרים היאך יכולנו לכבוש הר גבוה כזה, ורשעים בוכין ואומרים היאך לא יכולנו לכבוש את חוט השערה הזה" At the end of days, God will slaughter the evil inclination before the righteous and sinners. It will seem to the saints as a high mountain, and they will cry [in joy] and marvel how they were able to conquer such a mountain. On the other hand, it will seem like a hairs-breadth to the wicked, who will lament that such a small distance they were unable to go in order to be good.

Those who place their desires and passions at the service of their intellect will ultimately see how easy it would have been to do good. On the other hand, the righteous will remember the hardships over which they prevailed to control their urges.

Self-restraint is something that seems easy to have in retrospect, and yet, at the point of struggle, can be the hardest thing to attain. It may be even harder to maintain the belief that we can repent and re-arrange our lives after years of sin. However, every breath we breathe is testament to the fact that Hashem has not given up on us, and we have no right to resign ourselves, either. May we all succeed in our individual and national struggles against the evil inclination.