Wednesday, 22 Nov 2023

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

Two Wolves

In the 1930s, two scholars collaborated on a book that was first published in 1938 and has never been out of print; entitled A Rabbinic Anthology, it was a carefully selected range of rabbinic texts from across the spectrum of rabbinic literature, put under the appropriate thematic heading and arranged across thirty-one chapters. It is an essential and invaluable short cut for anyone looking for the source of a part-remembered quotation, or just for an apposite quote.

Naturally, describing a great work of scholarship that was years in the making as a ‘short cut’, even an essential and invaluable one, is probably an insult to the editors, though it is not intended as such. Why? Because of who they were: Claude Montefiore, co-creator of Liberal Judaism and Herbert Loewe, Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge University and father of my beloved teacher Professor Raphael Loewe, z”l. What made and still makes the Montefiore/Loewe collaboration so fascinating was that each had a very different approach to Judaism, the one progressive the other traditional… yet although they disagreed on much there was huge mutual respect.

I had recourse to it because, thinking about the ways in which Jacob and Esau are praised and pilloried, and held up as stereotypes, I wanted to find the specific source of a famous midrash about the Good and Bad Inclination. I looked up Inclination in the index, no joy. I looked up Good, nothing. I looked up Inclination, nada. It was only when I looked up Evil that I was directed where I needed to go.

In Jewish thought we all have a good and bad inclination, yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra. Now the Hebrew word ‘Ra’ doesn’t actually mean ‘bad’ it means ‘evil’, and I’m not sure that any of us would wish to entertain that we have anything deserving the label ‘evil’ in our hearts or minds, so the very idea seems too stark for us to take seriously. And yet, if you translate slightly differently, and talk of higher and baser instincts, you come closer to what I think the rabbis probably had in mind.

Surely, you might think, it would be much better for us, and for the world, if we could all manage on our higher instinct alone. The rabbis thought of this too, and came up with a midrash to explain what they concluded.

It is in Genesis Rabbah 9.7, that Rabbi Nahman bar Samuel calls the evil inclination ‘tov me-od’, very good. How can this be right, he is asked. Because were it not for the evil inclination no one would build a house, marry, have children, or engage in business.

This may sound a tad simplistic, but I think it is more sophisticated than it appears. The rabbis recognized that human beings need drive to achieve something in their lives, and that any achievement often puts us in competition with others who may well be focused on the same thing. Such is the way of the world, and without these drives we would languish in inertia and mediocrity; that may be a choice for some but not for most, and the last thing those with ambition and determination need is to feel guilty about making more of their lives.

So what is the ideal state for these yetzarim? There are two immediate answers: the good in overwhelming strength – too good to be true, or livable with! The evil in overwhelming strength – too awful to contemplate! Each in a state of mutual tension, neither overpowering the other, with the occasional sharp tug in one direction or another to keep us on our toes – just about perfect.

The other day, quite by chance, I found a surprising parallel to the Jewish yeztarim, and because of its focus an immediately endearing one, less abstract and just as wise.

An old Cherokee shaman once told his granddaughter:

My girl, inside us all there is a battle between two wolves.

One is evil.

It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow,
Regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity,
Guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies,
False pride, superiority and ego.

The other is good.

It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity,
Humility, kindness, benevolence,
Generosity, empathy and truth.

The old man paused. Then his granddaughter looked up at him and asked:

Grandfather, which wolf wins?

The shaman replied:

The one you feed, my girl, the one you feed.


Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.