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Of Vileness & Virtue

The 1990s author Tom Wolfe calls it "the decade of moral fever," as compared to the 1980s -- "the decade of money fever." The cry for moral virtue, particularly from the religious right, has reached thunderous proportions in response to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. But can we imperfect human beings achieve it?

From a Jewish perspective, the struggle for virtue is itself a virtue. Human behavior is nuanced and dynamic -- never purely right or wrong, virtuous or venal. Consider the biblical story of Jacob.

It has been many years since Jacob cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. Ever since, Jacob has learned about life the hard way. He flees to his family's old homeland, where he is exploited and deceived by his uncle Laban, who gives him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel. Jacob will work an additional seven years for the bride of his choice.

In the ensuing years, Jacob raises a family. He becomes rich in flocks and herds. Then comes the moment when Jacob knows that the unfinished business of his life has caught up with him: he is about to reunite with his brother Esau. He knows that he must make peace with his nemesis, and he is frightened. The encounter is to take place at Machanaim, "the camps."

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, Let me go, for dawn is breaking. But he answered, I will not let you go, unless you bless me. Said the other, What is your name? He replied, Jacob. Said he, Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed. Jacob asked, Pray tell me your name. But he said, You must not ask my name! And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel ("face of God"), meaning, I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved. The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip. (Genesis 32:23-32)

Wrestling with Ourselves

Who was Jacob's wrestling partner? According to one interpretation, it was the evil inclination -- the unsanctified piece of Jacob himself. The patriarch realizes that he has two sides: one Godlike, the other human. In wrestling with himself at Machanaim, Jacob comes to understand that in order to be complete he must embrace the two warring camps within himself. This is what it means to grow spiritually.

Before each of us can find wholeness, we must first make peace with that dark side, with what Karl Jung called "the shadow." We must understand it, know it, even embrace it. As our sages said, without the yetzer ha-ra -- the evil inclination, the unholy impulse -- the world could not exist. The disgruntled royal author of the book of Ecclesiastes muses: "And I saw that all labor, and every skill in work, comes from a man's envy of his neighbor." And we read in Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7), "Without the evil inclination, no one would father a child, build a house, or make a career."

The yetzer ha-ra is not all evil; it is also libido, ego, and the striving for power. Long before Freud wrote about sublimation, our ancient sages recognized the creative potential of our dark side. To "love God with all your heart" (Deut. 6:4) is to love God with all that is within us -- the good and bad parts. In the words of the Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev: "Make peace with your yetzer ha-ra and put it to use for the good of the world."

Making Peace with Our Yetzer Ha-Ra

The famous rescuer Oskar Schindler was a war profiteer, opportunist, hedonist, and bon vivant. He drank heavily, smoked endlessly, had two mistresses and three illegitimate children. Yet this man of great moral weakness used his yetzer ha-ra. Because he was so corrupt, he could corrupt others and therefore saved lives. This enabled him to achieve greatness. We learn from Oskar Schindler that each of us has within the potential for good and bad, decency and depravity, saintliness and sinfulness. The question is not how do we reach moral perfection. The question is: How do we take the conflicting urges within us and make of them a ladder that can lift us up to something higher?

In our daily lives we often are confronted with antithetical impulses. A colleague told me the following story: "I always ask the parents of bar and bat mitzvah students to remind their guests to dress appropriately in synagogue. By this I mostly mean that the women should not wear low-cut dresses, especially if they are coming up to the Torah to say a blessing. Well, last week a woman came up to the podium, and she was...well, almost nothing was left to the imagination. I found myself so distracted that I had trouble concentrating on my prayers. What should I have done?"

I reminded him of what the Hasidic rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotsk advised in such circumstances: When you are assaulted by licentious or "alien" thoughts during prayer, he said, you can do one of two things. You can either use all your energy in suppressing the thoughts or you can allow yourself to descend into the thoughts to see what is holy within them. Sometimes we can lift our base urges onto an invisible altar. If we take this path, we may hear ourselves say, "O God, thank You for beauty such as this in Your world."

Everything in Us Is Worth Something

Not long ago, I had lunch with a friend, a university professor. In the middle of the meal, he began to complain about the president of his university: "When this president first arrived, the place was in decline. Well, things are different now. He's really built it up. But the problem is that he has, well, you know, a really large sense of himself...his ambition is absolutely naked." "Don't you understand?" I said. "It's only because of those negative things that he could turn things around. Each of his positive qualities is accompanied by a negative one. It's part of the deal, free of charge."

We see this dynamic in the Bible. Was Abraham the patriarch who stood up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah or the father who willingly led his son Isaac to the sacrificial altar on Mount Moriah? Both. Was Jacob the thief who stole his brother's birthright or Israel, the one who learned humility at the Jabbok? Both. Was Joseph the arrogant brat who told on his brothers or the Egyptian statesman? Both.

Successful trial lawyers cannot be effective without outsized egos and monumental chutzpah. The public humanitarian is sometimes a tyrant at home. The creator of beautiful art may be tormented by debilitating demons. To achieve holiness in our lives we need to embrace the dark side, for the world cannot exist without it. In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah said: "The world endures because of three things: rivalry, lust, and mercy." If everything comes from God, then everything contains a spark of goodness -- even the yetzer ha-ra.

Israel Remains Jacob

And so it is with Jacob. Although the mysterious stranger gives him the name Israel -- the God Wrestler -- the patriarch is still known as Jacob ( Yaakov), the one who overreached and stole the birthright. The name Jacob never disappears. I am two camps, says Jacob. Jacob must learn to confront, and sanctify, his own inner duality of good and bad. He must become one.

When Rembrandt painted Jacob wrestling with the angel, he placed Jacob's head on the angel's chest. Jacob is exhausted but peaceful, his bearded face shining like a triumphant marathon runner. The angel is beautiful: loving, caring, comforting, and no longer confrontational. It is impossible to know if Jacob and the angel are wrestling or if they are dancing.

I can hear the angel saying: "Jacob, Jacob. Israel, Israel. It's all right. You can come home now. It's time to come home."

When we wrestle with our dark sides, we come home to ourselves. This is the Jewish path to virtue.

Jeffrey K. Salkin, senior rabbi of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY, is the author of, most recently, Being God's Partner (Jewish Lights Publishing). This article is adapted from a forthcoming book, Searching For My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World, to be published by Putnam in autumn 1999.