We're No Angels – In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, z"l
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Scholar, physician, institution maker, bridge builder, truth teller, and mensch – we would do well to appreciate any one of Twerski’s profiles. This morning, in the wake of his passing and in honor of his life and in honor of the Torah he loved so, I want to draw attention to but one aspect of his legacy by way of retelling a brief story, a rabbinic midrash that Twerski relates towards the beginning of one of his final books, A Formula for Proper Living.
This morning we read about the God’s giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The midrash imagines the heavenly exchange taking place behind the scenes:
When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels protested to God: “Do not give the Torah to mortals. They are incapable of observing it. Rather give the Torah to us.”
God turned to Moses and asked: “Well, Moses, how do you respond to their argument?”
Moses turned to the angels and asked them: “The Torah says, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Does that apply to you?”
The angels replied: “No, we are angels. We do not commit adultery.”
Moses continued: “The Torah says, ‘You shall not steal.’ Does that apply to you?”
The angels replied. “No, we are angels. We do not steal.”
On and on Moses went, showing the angels that the laws of the Torah could not apply to them, prompting the angels, eventually, to relent, so that Moses succeeded in bringing the Torah down to earth.
For Twerski, the point of the story is about the nature of Torah, human nature, and the relationship between the two. Angels, being angels, do not need the Torah. We humans, however, were created a little lower than angels. We are filled with impulses and urges that need to be managed. Why were we were given the Torah? Simple: because we are not angels! (p. 13)
Confused? Let me explain.
Unlike other faith traditions, we Jews do not believe that humanity was created all good or, for that matter, all bad. To be human, according to the Talmud, is to have two competing impulses, the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov; technically, they are the evil inclination and the good inclination, but for all intents and purposes they are functionally equivalent to Freud’s id and ego. By Twerski’s telling, the id, or yetzer hara, operates according to the pleasure principle, and the ego, the yetzer hatov, according to the reality principle. The former might prompt, for instance, the desire to shoplift; the latter reminds us that if we do so, we will go to jail. The yetzer hara is not a bad thing; it is actually really important. It is what drives us toward achievement, acquisitiveness, sexual activity, and more – all behaviors that make life possible, but all behaviors that can result in sin when not properly channeled through the yetzer hatov. Unlike angels, who have no desire to steal, or animals, who don’t worry about going to jail, human beings are composite creatures: animals by nature, but also endowed with the ability to consider the consequences of our actions, to defy bodily drives by making moral and ethical choices. Generally speaking, Jews have no concept of “sinning in our hearts.” What Jews definitely do have, is the concept of sinning in our deeds. A theology, as I have shared before, that can be distilled down to my late granny’s advice to me on the day of my wedding: “Elliot,” she said, “from here on out you can get your appetite anywhere you want – just make sure you always eat at home.” To have an appetite – for food, for sex, for achievement, for anything – is nothing to be ashamed of; it is what makes you human. But failing to control that appetite – that is where the trouble starts.
Which is where – and here we shift from human nature to the nature of Torah – our parashah comes into play. When God revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai, God established the covenant with us. We, in return, promised to fulfill our side of the covenant by keeping the 613 commandments, mitzvot. Simply stated, every time we fulfill a mitzvah, we signal our continued commitment not just to Torah, but to God. That said, fulfilling the covenant need not be the only reason to perform a mitzvah. Some people observe Shabbat because they find it to be a much-needed respite from the frenetic pace of their workweek. Some people keep kosher because they believe it to be a more humane diet, others because it is a positive act of Jewish self-identification that creates a distinctive and proud individual and group identity, and others because it connects them to prior and future generations. Some people perform acts of tzedakah, righteousness, because doing so is a way to cleave to God and walk in God’s ways. There are all sorts of reasons why people observe commandments – as many reasons, and combination of reasons, as there are people who observe commandments. As I have said many times from this pulpit, more important than why you do a mitzvah is that you do mitzvot.
By citing the midrash about the angels, Twerski is suggesting yet another reason to observe mitzvot – namely, that the mitzvot are not about fulfilling the will of God, but rather to refine us as human beings. In the words of the Midrash, Lo nitnu ha-mitzvot elah l’tzaref bahem et ha-b’riot. The mitzvot were given only in order to refine humanity.” (Midrash Rabbah 44:1) We are creaturely in nature; we possess a yetzer hara, an inclination for self-gratification, which, if unchecked, can lead us astray. God knows our inner struggle and wants us to stay on the straight and narrow. Which is why – long before the Fitbit, the Mirror home gym, or the Oura ring – God gave each of us a regimen to keep us spiritually fit, a life of Torah and mitzvot. Your choice not to eat that bowl of lobster bisque is, unto itself, the fulfillment of a commandment. But it is also is an act aimed at developing the all-important muscle group of personal agency. If, the thinking goes, I can show restraint in what I eat, how I allocate my time, and otherwise, then maybe I can demonstrate that same sense of personal agency in all aspects of my life. If I remember to say hamotzi before I eat bread, then maybe I will remember to say please and thank you to every person I meet. You get the idea. It is not foolproof by any stretch and there are no guarantees. There are plenty of Jews who separate milk and meat and live morally repugnant lives, just as there are plenty of ethically disciplined Jews who love a good Philly cheesesteak. But it is an argument for observing mitzvot that is well founded in the tradition. Namely, that the giving of the Torah is not some top-down assertion of God’s will upon humanity, but rather a manifestation of God’s love for us – in order to build us up, help us avoid wrongdoing, and enable us to achieve the fullness of our being.
It is difficult enough, in good times, to stay on the straight and narrow. Temptation is always crouching at our door, and the innate human propensity to excuse, contextualize, or relativize our failures, time and again enables us to justify pretty much anything we do. We are all, in Twerski’s estimation, akin to Charlie Brown trying to kick that football as Lucy, at the last second, pulls it away yet again. We keep telling ourselves that next time will be different, but at a certain point, it is we ourselves, not Lucy, who is to blame. Were that all – to name the human proclivity to avoid responsibility for our own role in the missteps of lives – that alone would be enough. That alone would suffice as a case statement for the importance of Torah: a reminder that it is we and not anyone else are responsible for our choices. But what Twerski understood, perhaps better than anyone, is that the human toolbox of avoidance can turn toxic. Rather than admit to fault, address our failings, and confront our pain, we seek refuge. We comfort ourselves in excessive food. We hide ourselves away in excessive work or excessive exercise, or we turn to the escape of alcohol. Jews are not ascetics. There is nothing wrong with working hard, exercie, or finding pleasure in life – in moderation. The problem is when these behaviors become a form of escapism aimed to fill a void and avoid reality. The problem – as we will learn on March 8, when we welcome Rabbi Iggy of T’Shuvah Center in Brooklyn to speak to our community on addiction – is when innocent escape becomes a clinical dependency hurtful both to you and the very loved ones best able support you. It is hard enough, in good times, to stay on the straight and narrow, and our times are anything but good. The fear, uncertainty, and isolation wrought by COVID has frayed our personal and communal identities. The incidence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and dependencies of all kinds is on the rise. More than ever, we are in need of the spiritual tools to inoculate ourselves against the ravages of this dark hour. More than ever, we need to bring the subject of substance abuse out of the shadows. We need to speak openly about the challenges that so many in our community face, and we need to be the spiritual address providing community, support, and resources for those who seek them.
In the wake of his passing, in the face of our world in pain and the silent suffering of more than we dare count, I am hard-pressed to think of a more appropriate way to honor the life and legacy of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski – Harav Avraham Yehoshua ben Harav Ya’akov u-Devorah than to recommit ourselves to a life of mitzvot. To build a community sufficiently capacious in spirit to openly embrace those seeking support. And, most of all, to live our lives filled with an abiding awareness of the obligation and opportunity that comes with being human – namely – the act of taking personal agency for the choices of our lives. It is why God both trusted us and tasked us with the Torah.
We are, after all, no angels.
Twerski, Abraham J. A Formula for Proper Living: Practical Lessons from Life and Torah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009)