An overheard conversation at a celebration for a newborn one of the guests said to his friend, “There are two different perspectives on what it means to be human,”. One verse says,
But see, this I did find: God made men upright, but they have sought out many inventions. (Ecclesiates 7:3)
And another verse says The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devising of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
This conversation was too tempting for me not to jump into. My response to him was, “Both verses are true. Human nature is both good and evil.” Simplifying and insisting on only one aspect of reality or another is a distortion. Acknowledging the truth of all aspects of being human reflects the simple truth of human complexity. He insisted that there are two different opinions. Maybe. But if that’s true, I want to suggest that there is a third opinion, positing that both are true at the same time.
The philosophical question would not matter to me, if not for the fact that our self-concept has a profound effect on our expectations of ourselves and our capacity to grow in human stature.
Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, explaining the verse in Ecclesiastes (Ein Aya, Shabbat 10b Ch. 1 par. 21) explains: “The inner essence of a person tends towards goodness – an effect of the divine soul within every person.” Until society becomes spiritually elevated, man’s societal interactions tend to accent the superficial side of people and what they can get from each other. This causes them to fall into corruption as a result of envy, self-glorification, and ingrained bad habits. What’s needed is a focus on accessing the person’s inherent, inborn goodness together with study of Torah (awareness of God’s communication of His will to man) and musar (the attention to and development of one’s current spiritual state).
A different Jewish thinker, Rabbi Natan (student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov) highlights another meaning in the same verse in Ecclesiastes. As soon as two human beings were created, there was a perception of differentiation. Man turns away from God and from his fellow man when he loses his divine consciousness of unity. The ultimate fixing of the world will come about when all mankind will realize that each person’s perspective is different; yet their distinctions originate in the one simplicity of God’s creation. Why did God create a world with such a multiplicity of opinions? The purpose was not envy or hatred. The purpose of the differences was to realize that they are all encompassed in the One-ness of God. (Hilchot Ribit halacha 5:1 [p. 193 Vol 4])
An earlier post “Human nature: good or evil?” posited that at the core a human being is good and intuitively seeks out what is good.
We make a mistake by forcing a simple answer. The true answer is that we have to be conscious of our natural goodness and remember it in the face of our negative tendencies. That complexity is the simplicity of life.