Did you ever see a bad baby? I mean, outside of a horror movie, did you ever see a newborn that just seemed evil? An infant with the look of malice in her eyes?
We have all seen or heard about babies who are difficult, temperamental, or emotionally volatile, but have you ever seen a baby that was truly and intentionally hurtful? I don’t think so. Despite the things people sometimes say about people who were “born to be bad” or “wicked from the womb,” I think that we have an intuitive understanding that nobody really is born bad.
The qualities we associate with human evil – thoughtless anger, vindictiveness, willed hostility, hatred, resentment, and jealousy – these are all learned behaviors. The forces that make people engage in bad behavior are a complex mixture of experience, environment, and temperament, but, for the most part, bad behavior is product of hurtful experiences and hurtful circumstances. People learn to be bad when they are forced into difficult situations, when they are treated badly, or, when they don’t have their basic needs met. That is what makes people bad.
And though it might be tempting to think that human beings are neutral from birth – neither good nor bad – there is actual scientific evidence to suggest that people are naturally good. In 2007, researchers at Yale University set out to discover if infants had a preference for good over evil. They showed six- to ten-month-old babies a simple puppet play. One of the characters in the play started at the bottom of a hill. The babies watched this character struggle to climb up the hill over and over again.
Then, two other characters were introduced. One character helped the first one go up the hill by pushing up from behind. The other new character tried to hinder the first character by pushing down from above. The babies watched these scenes repeatedly with enough time for them to recognize the different characters, to process what each character was trying to do, and to decide what they thought about it.
Then, the researchers presented each baby, one at a time, with a choice to reach to touch either the helping character or the hurting character to see which one the baby preferred. The babies overwhelmingly chose the helper. Fourteen out of sixteen ten-month-olds, and twelve out of twelve six-month-olds, chose the helper character and not the hurter. (“Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants,” Nature. Vol. 450, 22 November 2007).
Even more compelling to me is the evidence from studies that look at the way we respond to seeing other people in pain. Did you ever watch someone get injured and flinch as if the same thing were happening to you? MRI brain scans show that when we see another person in pain, it stimulates the same parts of our own brains that are stimulated when we are injured ourselves. We all have specific cells in our brains, called mirror neurons, that help us feel what other people feel. Some scientists see this as evidence that our brains are hard-wired for empathy.
When the Torah instructs us to love other people as we love ourselves, it is a reflection of a neurological reality. Caring for other people, feeling their hurt as if it were our own, is part of how our brains are supposed to work.
Is that the same thing as goodness? You might argue that our preference from infancy for pro-social behavior and our neurological programming for empathy are just examples of how evolution has made us social animals who care about others for our own benefit. You could argue that it’s not really pure altruism – pure goodness – because each individual benefits from being part of a group in which everyone cares for each other. But, isn’t that what goodness really is? Acting for the benefit of others – no matter what the motivation – is also a choice against selfish behavior that benefits only ourselves. We have a choice between good and bad behaviors. From an early age, and in ways that are intrinsic to our physical construction, we have an inborn preference to choose to be good.
This scientific understanding of our natural tendency toward benevolence is parallel to the dominant beliefs of Jewish tradition. Judaism generally teaches that people have both an inclination to do what is good – yetzer ha-tov – and an inclination to do what is wrong – yetzer ha-ra – but that in the interaction between these opposing forces, we always have the capacity and the innate preference to overcome our bad inclination with the good.
The traditional blessing that Jews recite upon waking in the morning says, Elohai neshamah shenatata bi, tehorah hee, “My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure.” We may develop bad and hurtful behaviors in our lives – and we all do, to one extent or another – but this prayer, and rabbinic Judaism, says that our deepest essence, the person we are at our core, is fundamentally pure. We are born to be good.
I should note that this is an idea that is a contrast to the beliefs held by some Christians, especially evangelical Protestants. The belief in original sin, the idea that every human being has a fundamentally sinful nature from birth, derives from idea that Adam and Eve sinned in eating the forbidden fruit and that all human beings inherited that sin from them. Judaism rejects this interpretation of the Garden of Eden story. While some Christians believe that humanity needs to be saved from a sinful nature, Judaism believes that humanity needs to save itself by embracing and expressing a nature that is intrinsically good. The Torah teaches that the goodness of the world, which God declared in the creation of the world, still stands. It is still part of who we are.
But Judaism also has this additional observation about the nature of our goodness: Our tendency to be good may be innate, but it is not necessarily permanent. Every time we engage in good behavior, we strengthen our natural tendency to do what is good and right. But every time we engage in bad behavior, we weaken that tendency and we actually train ourselves to misbehave. Or, to put it another way, being good is a habit. The more we do it, the more we want to do it. The less we do it, the more we wean ourselves away from goodness.
The preeminent example of this in Jewish tradition is Pharaoh. Several times in the book of Exodus, we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Moses and the Israelites, making him more and more determined not to free the slaves every time Moses said, “Let my people go.” The rabbis are troubled by this. They wonder, did God deny Pharaoh free will by hardening his heart? If so, by what right did God punish Pharaoh for doing something that he was not free to choose?
In the midrash, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish answers the question by saying, “When God warns a person once, twice, and even a third time, and the person still does not repent of bad behavior, then God’s heart narrows against that person’s ability to change his or her behavior” (Sh'mot Rabbah 13:3).
I think that we can understand the theological explanation in the ancient midrash with the language of psychology we use today. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was an ailment that Pharaoh chose for himself. Every time Pharaoh said “No” to Moses, Pharaoh became more deeply inured to his own cruel behavior. After he had made evil choices so many times, he rendered himself incapable of behaving any other way. It is not that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to change his behavior. Rather, God’s compassion was exiled from Pharaoh’s heart by the choices Pharaoh made himself.
There is a lesson in this for us. Be careful about the choices you make. Choosing behavior that goes against your own awareness of what is right makes it harder for you to make good choices in the future. If you behave in ways that are morally compromised, lacking in integrity, cruel or hurtful, you may make yourself incapable of making any other choice. Good or bad, sinners or saints, we are the choices we make. Being good is not about the lofty hopes or wishes we think about but don’t act upon. Being good is only about what we actually do. We are only as good as our actions.
To turn this observation around and put it in positive terms, we should all remember that we are – deep to our core – really good. None of us was born bad, not a single one of us. It is within us to be good and to make ourselves better through good actions. Each one of us has the capacity within us to be as righteous as Moses. We were made to be good.
On Yom Kippur, when we are called upon to atone for our bad behavior and to engage in repentance, we can know that we are truly returning back to our natural state. That is why we call repentance t’shuvah. The word in Hebrew literally means “returning.” In making atonement, none of us has to go to a place we have never been before. Turning toward God is returning to the place we all came from. Turning to God is going back to the person we were before we were derailed by life’s difficult circumstances, by the suffering we have endured, and by our unmet needs. Making atonement is an act of repairing the damage of our past. When we atone, we are really healing ourselves, loving ourselves, coming to terms with our remembered pain, and becoming more than the just the product of our past suffering.
Know this, my friends. You are good. You were born to be good. Even more, you were born to help make the world good, just the way God intended the world to be from the very beginning. You already have it within you to repair the mistakes you have made, the hurt you have done, and the hurt you have experienced. You have everything you need. It is what you are here for. It is why you are on earth. This Yom Kippur, make it real. Return to who you really are.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for goodness.