Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
A World Filled with Violence
Our, then, 10-year-old daughter, Amalya came home one day from the Jewish day-school she attended, with an assignment: to write a short essay about the first verses of Noah, this week’s Torah portion.
This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japhet. The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence. [Genesis 6:9-11]
She was to respond to this question: “What would a world filled with violence look like? If Noah was righteous in a world filled with violence, what was it like for him to live in that world?” Her essay’s immediate answer was: “We don’t have to imagine what it would be like; we already live in a world filled with violence.” A few lines later she pondered: “I wonder why God created something in us that made us become violent.” By simply asking the question, she happened upon an awareness of the inner dimensionality of this problem: inside all of us are both the potentials for peace and compassion and for violence and destruction. A part of us is like Noah; righteous and blameless, walking in alignment with the Divine within. Another part of us joins with the rest of earth’s inhabitants described in Torah as beings “with wicked thoughts in their heart” [Gen. 5:5]. Judaism is replete with stories about this inner struggle. Just last week we read about Cain and Abel. But there are such stories in most spiritual traditions the world over. One of my favorite is from a Cherokee legend which goes like this:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
That which God created in us that can lead us to violence is the illusion of separation; this sense of an estranged self, isolated and afraid, always ready for battle in the barren world of scarcity. This wolf is called Yetzer HaRa, in Hebrew: Evil Inclination. Evil because it is the inclination in us that collapses our consciousness away from knowing the Divine embodiment we are, and attaches it to this illusory separate sense of self. What we are to be mindful of is what we feed this wolf. We feed the Yetzer HaRa when we live unexamined lives, gorging unconsciously at the trough of our senses and the tales our minds tell. We starve the Yetzer HaRa when we live mindfully, are more discerning in giving validity to our thoughts, and remain both aware and equanimous when faced with the pull of our senses and emotions. But that’s not all. Our culture also contributes to its feeding. Boys in our society, for example, are fed ideals of hyper-masculinity which venerates physical strength, aggression and sexual dominance. They are taught to resolve conflict with violence, to not share their feelings and be loners, to never appear weak and transmute their emotions of sadness into anger. They are told to “man up,” to never cry, and to fear being called a girl or any other insult that demeans the feminine and feminine attributes. No wonder we have a gun violence epidemic on our hands, no wonder our girls and women are assaulted, abused, raped in our schools, colleges, work places, homes, streets, every day. We will only starve this wolf when we take the steps necessary to reverse what our culture does to our boys, adopt and actively promote a different set of values.
The other wolf, we call: Yetzer HaTov, the Good Inclination. It draws us nearer to Source, reconnects us to Truth, erases the delusory boundaries that divorce us from Being. We feed the Yetzer HaTov by practicing humility, love, and truthfulness in our everyday life, in our encounters with each other. We feed that wolf when we nourish one another with the gifts of understanding, generosity and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving-kindness. To feed the Yetzer HaTov in our boys, we need to work with them on valuing empathy, on reclaiming their inner femininity, on accepting and trusting their emotions, on helping them develop true friendships where they can feel safe to express their innermost feelings and learn to resolve their problems in healthy, constructive, and peaceful ways.
Now is the time for us to take a serious look at the ways we contribute to feeding one wolf over another in ourselves. But let’s also take an honest look at the ways we, too, sponsor directly or indirectly by our choices a society that idealizes violence, objectifies women, and glorifies power and dominance. Decide today, and every day, which of the two wolves you want to feed.