Shaya Cohen -


Man in a State of Nature

The animal kingdom has no concept of equality. The Lion King, Hamlet reincarnated, demonstrates this quite well: every species occupies a spot in a hierarchy, and within the species, there are hierarchies for each person. It was only natural, then that Plato spoke of mankind being classified as gold, silver or iron/bronze, similarly understanding that we are not created equal. Such a conclusion is obvious by merely sampling the data; only an idiot (or someone who believes in a divinely-gifted soul) would think otherwise.

In such a world, a world without G-d, men establish their own hierarchies, unconstrained by any moral principles. We have seen the result throughout history: might makes right. The most powerful seize power and then do whatever is needed in order to hold it against anyone else who would like to rise to the top. Along the way, these strong men seem to invariably and instinctively seek to reduce others as well: it is not enough that they should rise – everyone else must also fall. So while a strongman may begin as just a leader among leaders (think of Lenin and his cohort), he soon finds ways to eliminate rivals. His power is dependent on others not having power. We can see it in Stalin and Putin, Mao and Saddam Hussein. The powerful men rose, but their countries always did worse than their freer contemporaries.

We also see it in the Torah, in the generation of the Flood. Gen 6:4, “when the sons of gods cohabited with the human women, who bore them offspring. Such were the mighty of old, the men of renown.” These were men – men who were greater than those around them, who took the women they wanted. Men who sought fame for themselves, under the justification of a lawless “Might makes Right” ethic. They were the tinpot dictators of their day, seeking aggrandizement at all costs, which included damaging their world enough so there was no prospect of a better future.

G-d’s reaction was grim: “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every desire in the thoughts of man’s heart was nothing but evil all the time.” Indeed, “the world was filled with hamas [animalistic lawlessness – might makes right],” So G-d decided to destroy the world.

What strikes me is how some of these same words are contrasted later in the text – for the building of the tabernacle. The Flood generation has the first mention in the Torah of a man’s heart, a lev. In the Torah, the word for “heart” never actually refers to the human organ; it always refers to a person’s self, perhaps his consciousness. And in that generation, the heart was full of evil, all the time.

But when G-d commands the building of the tabernacle, the mishkan, the people are told that they can contribute, as much or as little as their hearts desire. In this case, the people give so much of everything that they have to be told to stop, that there is more than enough building material already. It is a stark contrast to the Flood times: people give to the whole, take part in a grander plan. Instead of making themselves greater by putting others down, they contribute alongside others, seeking to invest in a group project, one that will elevate the entire people by creating a home for G-d’s presence among the people. The heart, the lev, of the people could not be more different than during the Flood generation. Mankind has not changed, but G-d’s involvement in the world has.

Another word is also found in both sections: the word for “full”, maleh. In the Flood generation, the world was maleh with “might makes right.” But when the tabernacle is built, G-d has filled each person’s heart with capability, with chacham, the ability to create and fashion beautiful things for G-d’s house. But chacham, by itself, is also not a positive attribute. Pharaoh’s “wise men” were called chacham, yet they were foolish enough to seek to match Moses’ tricks, instead of trying to counter them (making more staffs into snakes, making more blood, etc.). It is the combination of chacham, lev, and G-d’s own spirit that makes man productive and constructive.

A simple reading of the Torah, then, suggests that it is G-d’s own presence, not the thoughts of mankind on our own, that makes it possible for humans to learn kindness, to come to an understanding about the value of each person, of each life. In a world where G-d stands back and lets people figure things out, we invariably revert to a state of nature, where man reverts to selfishness and hierarchy, to seeking greatness at the cost of others. It is only when G-d is closely involved are we able to fill our hearts and consciousnesses with the kinds of thoughts and desires that lead to growth and maturity, that lead to love and consideration instead of violence and tyranny.

P.S. The word maleh in the Torah is always about something that has been filled and primed, ready to be used. When time is full, Jacob gets to marry Leah and then Rachel. When a woman’s days of pregnancy are full, she gives birth. When water skins are filled, they are poured out for those in need. When a person’s heart is full of chacham, they need to act – to create, to build, even to write. Indeed, this expression best explains what personally drives me to write about Torah: I feel that I am full of a thought, and that I am compelled to write it down and to share it with others.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder work]

Comments are welcome!

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