Religion is about lots of things – beliefs, rituals, myths and legends; creation of community and civilized behavior; life, death and all that other stuff that fills our days and provides meaning and focus to our lives.
At some point, the concept of good and bad becomes the point of organized belief systems. The human condition – our wants, needs and desires – is often ignored, pushed aside in the name of religion. At the other end of the spectrum, such human stuff is embraced and codified into religious law and doctrine.
In Judaism, it’s believed that within each of us is the capacity to be both good and bad. The image that often comes to mind is a cliché – devil on one shoulder tempting us to follow our baser instincts, always in conflict with the angel on our other shoulder holding us back.
These two inclinations – Yetzer HaRah (bad) and Yetzer HaTov (good) – define us as humans and are inextricably linked to the concept of “free will”. After all, in most situations there’s always a choice and, given that we’re not puppets, it’s up to each of us to decide what door we’ll walk through each day.
A small example. Late at night, unable to sleep and staring at the ceiling, we hear our Yetzer HaRah calling out to us, reminding us that there’s a luscious piece of chocolate cake in the fridge whispering our name. Our Yetzer HaTov reminds us that we’re on a diet, that we’ve lost five pounds and been good for a month. The little devil on our other shoulder suggests one tiny slip will do little harm. And so it goes.
Judaism, btw, doesn’t suggest giving in to our wants and desires is demonic or evil. At worse, hopping out of bed and finishing off a slice of the forbidden – and tantalizing – cake is simply misusing one of the things we need to survive. Thus the need for food, when handled poorly, becomes gluttony. Now replace food with money, love or any of the other desires that fill our lives and you stumble into what Christians define as the Seven Deadly Sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. That’s a blog posting for another day!
Meanwhile, I’ve scampered down this road today because of something I read recently. I was reminded yet again how much all the world’s belief systems are alike. For eons, mystics have borrowed one another’s stories and legends, tweaking them lightly and changing cultural reference points – different roads, same destination. But I digress.
Looking for a little light reading earlier this week, I picked up Power Play, a thriller by Joseph Finder. The book’s protagonist, Jake Landry, once upon a time got himself into some hot water. He finds himself standing before a judge who, before sentencing him, offers up this little story. I paraphrase:
There’s an old Cherokee legend about a young man who keeps getting into trouble because of his aggressive tendencies. The man meets with his grandfather and explains to him that sometimes he feels such anger he can’t control his emotions.
His grandfather, a tribal elder and a wise warrior, says he understands, that in fact he used to be the same way. He explains that inside each person are two wolves; one is good and kind and peaceful, the other is evil and mean and angry. He adds that the two wolves are always fighting with one another.
The young man listens, thinks for a moment, then asks, “But Grandfather, which wolf will win?” The old man responds: “The one you feed.”
A footnote: I was impressed and intrigued with the parable and thought Finder did a nice job incorporating the little story into his novel. I then googled “Feed the wolf” and saw that the Native American tale is all over the web. Apparently it’s not just religions and cultures that borrow stories from one another!