Ask the Rabbi

  • Torah and Jewish Thought
  • Torah Teachings

Human Nature good or bad? & Bible's warning from corruption


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Sivan 28, 5778
Short version: (1) Are there any stories in the Bible that metaphorically teach us not to assume the worst about people? (2) Does the Bible teach that we are all capable of evil, and that the fundamental story of mankind is striving to overcome this darkness within us with courage, faith, grace, and forgiveness? Long version: I’ve been really interested in looking at different world religions through a metaphorical lens. The Hebrew Bible in particular has become shockingly beautiful to me, where there are metaphors within metaphors within metaphors. A lot of the stories seem to deal with intimate betrayals, and seem to be teaching us with dealing with dealing with when other people let us down. Cain kills his brother; Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery; Delilah cuts Samson’s hair. Other stories deal with us letting ourselves and God down. Adam disobeys God. David murders a man so he can sleep with his widow. The Israelites repeatedly turn to idols. The Hebrew Bible seems to be acknowledging the darkness within people and within ourselves, and calls us to transcend that darkness with courage, strength, grace and forgiveness. I recently learned a story from the Book of Mormon. General Moroni and another guy have a miscommunication because a letter was lost in the mail, and there is a risk of a dispute. However, the miscommunication is resolved and the two people return to being friends. It’s a beautiful story, where the moral is that we shouldn’t assume the worst about people, because it might just be a miscommunication. But on a metaphorical level, it seems to me to be a completely contradictory message to the Hebrew Bible. If the most basic story of humanity is confronting the darkness within ourselves and our brothers with grace and faith, then it is probably not a good idea to assume the best about people, because even David is capable of murder. Am I reading the Hebrew Bible’s take on human nature right? And are there any stories in the Hebrew Bible that metaphorically (or literally) teach us not to assume the worst about people? Thank you so much for your time.
There is a very important distinction which you didn’t make, between: how we should judge ourselves (in all honesty and often severity, not looking for excuses), as opposed to the way we should judge others favorably (as a rule, giving them the benefit of the doubt). There are many stories in the Bible that teach us not to judge others negatively, but rather positively. Every time Hashem forgives us, whether for making the Golden Calf (Shmot 32), or when Moshe prays to save Miriam who spoke bad about him, to judge her favorably (Bamidbar 12); when God wants Avraham to convince Him to save the cities of Sodom, as if it were “bargaining” Him down from demanding 50 righteous people, to agree to save the city even if there are only 10 (Breishit 18). Similarly, one of the central motifs throughout Psalms, is that David often recalls the severity of hurting others through speech, especially speaking bad about them (e.g. chapters 5, 12, 28, 31, 50, 52, 54, 57,59, 63 101, 120, and see individual verses like: 3, 3; 4, 7; 10, 7; 14, 1; 17, 10; 34, 14; 35, 20; 36, 4; 38, 13; 39, 2; 41, 7; 55, 10; 58, 4; 64, 4; 73, 8; 75, 6; 78, 36; 94, 4; 109, 3; 137, 3; 140, 4; 141, 3; 144, 8), and teaches us precisely not (!) to judge others negatively but rather positively. Another important correction: the Torah doesn’t say that human nature is bad, but to the contrary, we are inherently good and Godly, “in the image/copy of God was man was created” (Breishit 1, 27), “I created man as straight” (Ecclesiastes 7, 29). There is even no word in Hebrew for sin, but rather “to mistake”, and nobody is “damned”, but rather expected to sincerely right what he wronged. But part of that “Godly good” instilled in man, is that we have free will (we are independent, like God), and must use courage, strength, and idealism to choose good, not bad (the main point is not to "obey" and "not disobey", but rather to independently choose to live Godly and identify with the Godly ideals). As opposed to the Christian bible, the original Torah is not at all naïve, and doesn’t “whitewash” mistakes of David, Moshe, etc., not in order to mistrust others (although one shouldn't be naive), but in order to teach me (!) to watch myself, because everyone makes mistakes. Even after the most severe actions, David is forgiven because he immediately admits to Nathan, “I have sinned” (Samuel II, 12, 13). Even the most assimilated Jews know that every year on the holiest Yom Kippur, we honestly apologize to each other in order to forgive and forget. Again, be honest and demanding from yourself, but judge the other guy favorably whenever possible!
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