Every year, as I prepare for the High Holidays, I struggle with how to make our experience here together transformational in some way. Because I know that, for myself, and probably most of us, we come back year after year with mostly the same sets of issues and concerns. So I ask myself : What can I, as a Rabbi on Rosh Hashanah, say that will help us to become the human beings we would like to see ourselves as?
The great prayer which the Cantor chants during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, Unetaneh Tokef, creates an impression of human powerlessness. We appear before God on Rosh Hashanah, described as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. God is judge, prosecutor. expert, and witness. God knows all, every forgotten thing, reading it out of the Book of Remembrance. The imagery shifts, and now God is a shepherd, and we are sheep, passing underneath the staff. A final shift, and God is decreeing the fates of every living thing in the coming year.
These three scenes convey an impression of our utter lack of control. There is nothing whatsoever that we can do to determine our destiny. Everything is in the hand of God.
As frightening as this imagery might seem to many of us, it does convey a truth of human existence. So much of who we are, our personality and characteristics, are pre-determined. Whether by genetics or the family and community into which we were born, i.e. nature or nurture – we do not get to decide our core personalities, our innate strengths and weaknesses.
Even the ability to make choices is something of an illusion. Much of our mental activity takes place on a subconscious level, determined by neurohormonal loops that regulate our emotions. While it seems to us that we have free will and are making choices for ourselves, in reality the outcome is predetermined by our biochemical makeup.
Religious language that speaks of our utter lack of control over our fate and our total dependence on God would seem to reinforce this notion. Drawing upon biblical imagery, our machzor describes human life as insignificant, using terms like “a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a vanishing dream,” in contrast to God, who is “the sovereign, living God, ever-present.” All that we can do is appeal to God to be loving and merciful with us.
We come into the new year wrestling with ourselves. We have spent the past month inspecting our deeds, focusing on where we have gone off course, and striving to make amends with each other, with ourselves, and with God. And it is hard work. To approach someone we have wronged with openness and honesty takes tremendous courage. Our tradition provides us this annual opportunity to face our imperfections.
However, even when we have bravely performed real teshuvah, there is little we can do to change our core personalities, to affect the neuropathways in our brains that regulate all behavior. Pathways that we have spent a lifetime establishing. It is not a simple thing to rewire the brain.
The fact that we return annually to recite the same prayers and make the same confessions would seem to reinforce the notion that from year to year, most of us are the exact same people, struggling with the exact same character flaws.
So how can we make the celebration of the new year personally transformational?
A Cherokee legend teaches of a boy who got in a fight. His parents send him to go speak with his grandfather. The two of them go for a walk on a path through the forest. The leaves of the trees and the soft breeze protect them from the heat of the noonday sun. The two walk in silence, holding hands.
After a time the grandfather interrupts the silence. “Grandson, there are two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf! Ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
Hearing the words of his grandfather the grandson is filled with fear. With a tremor in his voice he asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the battle of your heart?”
To which he quietly responded, “The one I feed.”
We have Jewish terms that mirror these two wolves: the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra – the good inclination and the evil inclination.
A Talmudic sage teaches a similar lesson about what happens when we continue to feed our yetzer ha-ra.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri taught: A person who tears his clothing in anger, or who breaks his utensils in anger or who throws coins in anger – consider him like someone who worships idols, for such is the art of the yetzer ha-ra. Today it says, “Go do this.” And tomorrow, it says “Go do that.” until finally it says “Go worship idols,” And he goes and worships them. (BT Shabbat 105b)
For the Rabbis, idol worship is the paradigm of evil and immorality. It is the ultimate sin towards which the yetzer ha-ra drives us. This midrash draws a causal connection between simple, everyday expressions of anger and the ultimate descent into depravity.
Another midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were created today, on Rosh Hashanah. The Torah describes this moment using the verb vayyitzer ha-adam. (Genesis 2:7) “God formed Adam.” A Rabbi in the Talmud noticed that that the word vayyitzer is written in the Torah with two letter yud‘s. This hints at the creation of two yetzer‘s. Two inclinations, one for good and one for evil. (BT Berachot 61a)
Thus the two inclinations, the two wolves, are part of us. In both the Cherokee legend and the Jewish concept of two yetzarim, we have outsourced agency. It is not we who personally direct our behavior. External forces, which happen to reside within our hearts, are at fault. But those forces cannot be eliminated, for as soon as we did so, we would cease to be human.
A another midrash teaches that after forming humanity, God looks at all creation and declares v’hinei tov me-od. “Behold, it is very good.” “Good” refers to the the good inclination. “Very good” refers to the evil inclination. “How can this be?” asks the midrash. Because without the yetzer ha-ra a person would not build a house, get married, have children, or engage in commerce. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)
From a Jewish perspective, our goal must be to harness and control our inclinations, not to destroy them. We are not expected to deny who we are, to utterly eliminate aspects of ourselves. Neither are we allowed to complacently say, “this is just how God made me. There is nothing I can do about it.”
Short of brain damage or a lobotomy, we cannot ever banish parts of our core personality, but we can encourage certain traits and discourage others. As the grandfather acknowledges, while both wolves are always with us, it is we who feed them.
Let’s carry this metaphor a little further. For each one of us, our wolves have unique appetites. Some of our evil wolves feed on anger. We are quick to lose our temper, to shout at family members or friends, to swear at drivers who do not signal before merging, or to judge others harshly without first pausing to consider their perspectives and motivations.
Some of our wolves feed on jealousy. We compare our lives to others, and hold ourselves to unrealistic external standards. We want what our neighbors have: their homes, cars, families, bodies, full heads of hair.
Some of our wolves feed on low self-esteem. We downplay our successes and dwell on our failures. We strive too hard to be liked.
Some of our wolves feed on lust, or addiction, or greed.
What do our good wolves like to eat?
In the middle of Unetaneh Tokef, in just seven words, the Mahzor hints that our fates may not be quite as out of our control as we thought. Uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah ma-avirin et roa ha-g’zeirah. “But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can turn aside the severity of the decree.”
Although the decree cannot be erased, it can be redirected. Perhaps therein lies the answer to our quandary – three actions that feed the good wolf, that can encourage our yetzer ha-tov to take control and direct our yetzer ha-ra.
First: Teshuvah, repentance. The path of teshuvah begins with being self-reflective, being willing to admit our weaknesses without blaming others and do the work that is necessary to repair our brokenness. Teshuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that our loves ones can take us back, and that God will allow us to return.
Second: Tefilah. Prayer, but I would suggest that it is really about humility. We are asked to recognize that there is more to existence than our own egos, to acknowledge the typically ignored blessings in our lives with a sense of gratitude, to turn to God with a sense of wonder and awe at a world that is simultaneously both accessible and unfathomable.
Third: Tzedakah. Translated alternately as justice, righteousness, and charity. We act with the knowledge that what we typically consider to be our possessions do not fully belong to us. Tzedakah asks us to be generous to others with our time and our resources, to accept that we have obligations to one another, a duty to bring justice and righteousness into the world, and ultimately, to place the needs of others ahead of our own.
Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah: three feasts for the good wolf.
So although our personalities and characters may be sealed, our strengths and weaknesses determined for us by some complicated mixture of nature and nurture, even our fate in the coming year out of our control, our tradition teaches us that we have a say in the outcome of the battle taking place in our hearts.
It is about conditioning. Through the small, seemingly insignificant choices from day to day, we in fact have the ability to train our characters. We can cultivate qualities that make us better people and redirect qualities that separate us from each other and from God.
So as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and enter the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, let’s each ask ourselves: What do my wolves like to eat? How have I been feeding them? And what can I do in the year ahead to give the good wolf the upper hand in the battle for my heart?