It was a debate that has divided the world of philosophers for thousands of years. But, thank Gd, because of Hillary Clinton and Jared Kushner, we now know who was right! The foundation of Western philosophy comes from 3 men who lived 2500 years ago. You know their names: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. What many don’t know is that Plato was a student of Socrates and Aristotle a student of Plato. So, within a 100-year period, these 3 giants had a profound effect on the way we think to this very day.
In the newest issue of The Jewish Review of Books, there’s an insightful article by Abraham Socher titled, “Is Repentance Possible?” The article pointed out a major difference in the thinking of Socrates and Aristotle. Socrates believed that all of us make mistakes; however, “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” When we do wrong it isn’t because we intended to…it’s simply because we made a mistake in thinking that what we were doing was right.
Aristotle saw things quite differently. Aristotle’s thinking on this matter is expressed in the Greek word, akrasia, “weakness of the will.” Unlike Socrates who said, “We always want to do good but we make mistakes in thinking what the right thing is to do”…Aristotle says no…we know what the right thing is to do, and yet at times, we have a “weakness of the will” and we go and do the wrong thing.
So, who’s right? Well, it’s only been debated for 2500 years, but, thank Gd, because of Hillary Clinton and Jared Kushner…we now know that Aristotle was right!
Jared Kushner was recently in the news when it was revealed that our President’s son-in-law and close advisor had been using personal email for government business. And not just him…but that his emails were on a private server he shares with his wife, Ivanka, who is also on the White House staff. Now, let me ask you: what was he thinking? For years now, Hillary Clinton has been criticized, condemned and investigated by everyone from the FBI to Congress because she used a private email server while she was Secretary of State. This was considered a gross violation, and everyone—from Republicans to Democrats—were asking, “What was she thinking?” especially since she was warned not to do this. And now, Jared Kushner goes and does it as well?
You can give whatever excuse you want, but Jared Kushner studied Talmud at a Jewish day school and he knows that even if what you’re doing is perfectly innocent—but others may interpret it as you doing something wrong—you shouldn’t do it! It’s what we in Yeshiva affectionately called, “Morris,” short for moris ayin—how something appears, counts. Sure, I could go into McDonalds to just use their bathroom, but Jewish law would tell me: better not to do it because when I walk out people will be convinced that Rabbi Kunis ate a Big Mac. Jared, what were you thinking?
It can’t be Socrates thinking—that Kushner thought he was doing the right thing! Today you have to be deaf, dumb and blind to think that—especially after what Hillary went through. It must be what Aristotle said: Kushner had to know there was something smelly about what he was doing, and he went and did it anyway. And you know why he did it? Because, as today’s Torah reading teaches us, he was created, b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of Gd).
What does it mean that man is created in Gd’s image, in His likeness? You would be surprised how many different answers there are in the Jewish tradition to this question. According to Maimonides, the Divine Image refers to man’s intellect which is superior to all other creatures. According to Nachmanides, it refers to man’s holy eternal soul which other creatures do not have. According to the Malbim and many others, it means that we have free-will. All other creatures are preprogrammed by their DNA and environment. Only humans have free-will.
Free-will is a fundamental principle of Judaism. When we do something—right or wrong—it’s because we chose to do it, period! Yes, environment counts, DNA counts, culture counts…but the bottom line: we know what we’re doing and we do it nevertheless. It happens to me all the time. I can be working on the computer preparing for a sermon. I search for a website that’ll tell me something about free-will…and the next thing I know I am watching a Shlomo Carlebach concert from 20 years ago! How did I get there? It’s not where I had really intended to be. I know all the songs by heart so I shouldn’t be wasting my time…but I choose to do it. Aristotle was right! It all boils down to akrasia—weakness of the will.
Maimonides must have had this in mind when he taught: Let it not occur to your mind that Gd decrees at the birth of a person that he shall be good or evil. It is not so. Every human being is capable of becoming righteous like Moses or wicked like Jeroboam. Wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, uncharitable or generous; and so with all other traits, there is no one to compel him or to decree what he is to do. No one is going to pull him in their direction; it is he who directs himself deliberately toward any cause he desires.
Notice, Maimonides said that we could be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam. We can understand why Maimonides chose Moses as the symbol of righteousness. But why did he choose Jeroboam as the symbol of wickedness? Most people don’t even know who Jeroboam was! And certainly we have confronted far worse than he. What was unique about Jeroboam? Jeroboam was the 1st king of the northern kingdom of Israel. He led the people to worship idolatry and built 2 Golden Calves! The interesting thing about him is that there’s nothing in his background that would make one think he could do such a detestable thing.
In fact, the Talmud tells us he was a brilliant Torah scholar…who then created 2 Golden Calves? What was he thinking? And what about the children of Israel? They followed him and worshipped these Golden Calves? Hadn’t they seen the movie of what happened the 1st time they did this? What were they thinking?
The answer is simple: they wanted to do it…they gave in to their worst inclinations. And it had nothing to do with the devil or Flip Wilson, and nothing to do with their DNA. As someone put it so well: Economic factors will determine whether we are rich or poor, but not whether we are honest or robbers. Environmental factors will determine what language we speak, but we decide what words we’re going to say. Psychological factors may determine whether we are happy or sad, but we decide whether that’s going to lead us to creative or destructive behavior. Our genetic makeup will determine the color of our eyes, but we choose what we want to look at and admire.
Yes, we all can be a Moses…but we all can also be a Jeraboam. It is up to us! Some of us, no matter how seemingly good, how seemingly successful, do the craziest things because, in the words of our tradition: Sh’tikaneys bahen ruach shtus (We allow a spirit of stupidity to enter us). Let us not fall victim to that. Let’s not be the ones of whom others will someday have to ask what we can’t help but ask about Hillary and Jared: “What were they thinking?”
Let us think before we act and choose wisely. Today’s Torah reading began with those immortal words: B’reyshit bara Elokim, commonly translated as, “In the beginning Gd created.” But the famous philosopher, Martin Buber, pointed out that these words can be read: “Gd created for the sake of making a beginning.” This year let us all make a new beginning so that we will witness the fulfilment of the prayer we recited this morning in the prayer for the new month: may we be blessed with a chayim shy’malu mishaalot libeynu l’tova, with a life in which all the desires of our hearts will be fulfilled for good). Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis