September 25, 2003
The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that we are created with yetzer hatov (good inclination) or yetzer harah (bad inclination). And, like Harry Potter and the evil Lord Voldemort, they're engaged in a never-ending battle. And have been since birth.
Indeed, with apologies to John Locke, the 17th-century philosopher who claimed that human beings are born a blank slate to be imprinted upon by family and society, I can tell you that my four sons emerged from the womb fully wired with good and bad proclivities and with essentially the same personality, and personality quirks that they possess today.
And while they didn't arrive with an instruction book -- only a no-exchange, no-return policy -- they did come equipped with free will, giving them the ability to make decisions regarding their actions. Of course, not necessarily decisions that further their best interests, decisions that require harnessing, suppressing or redirecting their bad inclination.
But that's our job as parents -- to help our children make sound choices, control their bad inclination and become solid Jewish citizens.
"I thought your job was to make us happy," Jeremy, 14, says.
"No, our job is to educate and civilize you," I answer.
"You can't tame us," Danny, 12, protests.
"Maybe we should be reading 'The Training of Wild Animals' instead of 'The Good Enough Parent,'" my husband, Larry, says.
Here's my unscientific take on parenting: Kids are hard-wired at birth. We can do myriad things to mess them up -- and a few things to improve them. But mostly they learn through example. Our example.
I also believe that kids are not innately bad, despite the fact that our family used to sing "Bad to the bone, bad to the bone, B-B-B-B-Bad to the bone" to Danny as an infant to calm him down.
Kids certainly act mischievously. In preschool, one of mine, who shall remain nameless, would check to see that his teachers weren't watching and then slug his archenemy classmate. Kids also act selfishly, refusing to share their toys or snacks. And they act meanly, by boasting, teasing, hurling hurtful adjectives at each other and forming impenetrable cliques.
But I've also seen my sons spontaneously befriend a shy or less-popular classmate. I've seen them berate other children for their prejudiced or nasty behavior. And I've seen them collect food and clothing to give to the needy.
In my experience, when kids exhibit abnormally unkind or otherwise egregious behavior, it usually signals some kind of emotional or learning issue that needs attention rather than punishment.
Additionally, despite its name, the bad inclination is not an entirely bad thing. In one midrash, Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman even calls it "very good." He says, "Without the yetzer harah, no man would build a house, take a wife, beget a family or engage in work."
It energizes us. And without it, no person would appreciate or do good things.
And so, our goal is not to eradicate, but rather to monitor and master the bad inclination, which is not dissimilar to what psychologist Carl Jung calls the shadow, the unpleasant and negative side of the personality that we keep hidden.
But there's nothing hidden about the bad inclination this time of year. For during this penitential period, which begins on the first of Elul and extends through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to scrutinize our behavior over the past year, especially confronting those instances in which our unattractive, antagonistic and animal nature prevailed.
"Have you done anything this year that you're not proud of?" I ask my sons.
"A few years ago, I pushed a kid's head against a brick wall," Danny volunteers.
"What about this year?"
"I can't remember."
This is not an easy exercise for children. It's even more difficult for them to ask forgiveness from people they have injured or harmed and from God for any promises they have broken.
But that's how moral growth takes place, by confronting these issues step by step, year by year. And Judaism has granted us this phenomenal, what educators call, "teachable moment."
Does it mean anything to kids that on Rosh Hashanah we are given an initial ruling -- life, death or undecided? That we have 10 days to kick our good inclination into high gear and, through repentance, prayer and mitzvot, avert an adverse decree? And that if we are successful, we are inscribed in the Book of Life at the close of Yom Kippur and essentially given a year's reprieve? No, probably not.
But this is an opportunity for kids to begin to reflect on their admirable and less-admirable actions. It is an opportunity for them to vow to live more virtuously.
As Mark Twain once observed, "There is a great deal of human nature in people."
We Jewish parents have always known this. It's the good and the bad news.
Jane Ulman and her husband live in Encino and have four sons.