September 2, 2016 § Leave a comment
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…”
Set before us, in this week’s Torah portion, is a choice between doing good and doing evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. When it is put that way, it seems so easy, really: you should choose to do the right thing.
Some things are in fact that clear: when you are standing in line at the cash register, it is indeed wrong to take one of the items on the counter and put it in your pocket without paying for it. Perhaps, when you were younger, you had this sudden awareness when standing there – at a moment when the cashier’s back is turned – that you could do something like that. Maybe it startled you, or frightened you: why am I thinking of such things?
But you should know: this awareness that it is possible to do something wrong is actually your moral insight at work. It means, in fact, that you are making an active moral choice. You know better. In the course of your moral development, you will encounter these decision-points and have to choose. And eventually, through the force of repetition, a particular decision-point becomes second nature. It’s no longer a choice but rather a habit to do the right thing. That’s a good thing.
The shoplifting scenario I just mentioned – the awareness that you could take something without paying for it – is one that adults don’t usually have much trouble resisting. Most of us have worked through that temptation and put it aside. Our habits are well-established in adulthood, in favor of paying for what we use.
So let’s talk about how Judaism frames these choices that we make. Judaism teaches that we are born with competing impulses – the impulse to do wrong, called yetzer ha-ra, and the impulse to do good, called yetzer ha-tov. These two impulses pull us in opposite directions. The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is really a Jewish image: the idea that we have these competing views, urging us to make a choice.
Our view is that we have a dual nature. Sin does not always win. In fact, it shouldn’t always win. You are presented with a choice between doing good and doing wrong. And you are expected to choose to do good.
In some areas of your life, that choice is easy. Once you’ve mastered your impulses and grown into adulthood, you don’t need to be congratulated for ignoring the temptations of the candy on the cashier’s countertop: of course you pay for what you take. But there are other places, other points in your life, where that choice is much harder.
Every one of us has a decision-point where it is necessary to make an active choice: Maybe it’s the choice between gossiping and refraining from gossiping. Maybe it’s the choice between fudging the numbers and giving full disclosure. Maybe it’s the choice between giving in to sexual temptation and remaining chaste. Any one of these things has the potential to be a decision-point.
One of those decision-points, for example, might relate to issues of race, class, and gender: how do you approach someone who is different than you – someone who comes from a different background? Do you choose to learn about the other, to find out what makes that person tick, so that you might find common ground? Or do you retreat into stereotypes? Do you assume you know a person’s motivations? Or do you ask to hear a person’s story?
I will give you a hint: if you ever find yourself saying ‘oh, but they’re like that’ you are engaging in a generalization – a stereotype – and haven’t yet done the work of finding out what really is motivating this group’s behavior. Ask yourself: how do I know that’s true? Have I actually ever met someone who’s like that? And did we ever have an extended conversation to learn why that might be true?
We are fed a steady diet of stereotypes in our movies and television shows. If you don’t actually know an immigrant or a migrant personally, for example, it’s easy to start believing the stereotypes, whether you intend to or not.
Judaism’s answer to this difficulty is found in the edifice of the commandments. We have this elaborate list of do’s and don’ts as a way to give us a way to structure our lives. In the midst of the chaos of competing impulses, the commandments provide an external grid by which we might measure our response. We are taught: you should not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
But there’s a catch: it is entirely possible (in the words of the ancient rabbis) to be ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.’ It is entirely possible to oppress the stranger while fulfilling the letter of the law to its outermost details. You can’t just give over all of your moral authority to the law and assume that its literal fulfillment will save you from any wrongdoing. We don’t believe that.
Rather, the Jewish view is that you must save yourself.
As a matter of fact, you must save yourself by working painstakingly through the moral code that you have inherited, deciding point-by-point, decision-by-decision how to act. It’s really difficult work, actually.
But we build a better world in these small steps, in these small acts of moral courage. It’s those moments when you say the right thing or resist the temptation or choose well. That’s how we live a life of dignity and integrity. That’s how we redeem the world.
 JPS translation
 The idea that we face these decision-points is one that I learned from the Jewish Mussar movement. Mussar teaches how to build character in response to these decision-points so that the choice to do good becomes easier.