An animal has no choice – no freedom – and therefore must say “yes” to his drives, to the world in which he lives. But a human being can say “no” to that which is unseemly and beneath his dignity. And when he says “no” to all that is ungodly, he is being Godly. He is showing that he was created in the image of God.
Adam and Eve had to learn this lesson, and their descendants forever after must learn from their failure. We are nowhere told in the Torah that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was in any way different from the fruit of the other trees in the Garden of Eden. Yet when she was tempted by the serpent, Eve looked at the fruit, and in her mind’s eye its attractiveness grew out of all proportion to reality.
It looked more luscious, it looked more juicy, it looked more appetizing. She even imagined that this was some kind of “intelligence food.” Her instinct bade her to do that which was in violation of the divine command. But counter to this she had the capacity, as a free agent created in God’s image, to say ayin, to say “no” to her instinct and her temptation. But she forfeited her opportunity.
The first human couple did not know how to say “no.” This was the beginning of their downfall.
Abraham was a great Jew – the first Jew. Yet in our tradition he is not famous so much for saying “yes” as he is for saying “no.” Abraham was the great iconoclast. It was he who said “no” to the idolatries of his day, who said “no” to his father’s paganism, who was the one man pitted against the entire world, shouting “no!” to all the obscenities of his contemporary civilization.
Moses was a great teacher. He gave us 613 commandments. When you investigate the commandments, you find that only 248 are positive – commanding us what to do. But 365 of them are negative – they say “no” to our wills and our wishes. For when we learn to say “no,” we are being free men and women under God.
The famous Ten Commandments have only three positive laws; the other seven are negative. Indeed, it is only through these negatives that we can live and survive and thrive at all. Without “You shall not murder,” there can be no society. Without “You shall not steal,” there can be no normal conduct of commerce and business. Without “You shall not commit adultery,” there can be no normal family life. Without “You shall not covet,” the human personality must degenerate and man becomes nothing more than an animal, a beast.
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“And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – it is this which gives man greater dignity and superiority over the animal – his power to say “no.” It is this freedom of the human personality taught by our Jewish tradition that we Jews must reassert once again in our own day.
The author Herman Wouk told me some time ago that a number of years earlier he was boarding a ship to go on a trip overseas. Several hours after he boarded, a cabin boy brought him a note from the apostate Jewish author Shalom Asch, asking Wouk to come to his cabin.
There Asch complained to him and said, “I don’t understand you, Mr. Wouk. You are a young man – yet you are observant and Orthodox. When my generation of writers was young, we were rebels, we were dissenters. We rejected tradition, we rejected authority, we rejected the opinions of the past. What happened to you? Why do you conform so blandly?”
Wouk gave the older man an answer that I believe is very important for all of us to know. He answered, “You are making a terrible mistake, Mr. Asch. You seem to forget that the world we live in is not a paradise of Jewishness. You seem to forget that the world we occupy has become corrupted, assimilated, emptied of all Jewish content.
“In a world of this sort, one does not have to be a rebel at all in order to ignore the high standards of Judaism. If you violate the Sabbath, if you eat like a pagan, if you submit to the cheap standards of morality of the society in which we live, then you are being a conformist; you are merely allowing your own animal instincts to get the better of you.
About the Author: Rabbi Norman Lamm is chancellor of Yeshiva University and rosh hayeshiva of its affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchnanan Theological Seminary.
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