Posts Tagged 'Noach'

The Nature of Human Nature : Noah and Positive Psychology

As I have written about in the past at the start of the summer I had the pleasure of going to the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference in Fort Worth Texas. IPEN aims to bring together teachers, students, parents, higher education, charities, companies and governments to promote Positive Education. The objective of Positive Education is not only to improve students’ well-being but also their academic performance. Positive Education is the programmatic/educational cousin of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life. There at the conference I got to hear Dr. Martin Seligman , the father of Positive Psychology, explain the history of how the shift from focusing on pathology to building on strengths and how that opened up a whole scientific study of human flourishing.

At the conference I learned about a ton of compelling research proving the success of this work and many interesting strategies that people are employing to support their students’ flourishing. Hearing Seligman, I was moved thinking about how much of the shift from a pathology to strength based approach is actually determined by your fundamental understanding of the human condition. Our primary myth of who we are as people might itself set limits to our imagination and capacity to flourish and be successful. Since that time I have been giving a lot of thought to the stories we decide to tell that might help us flourish.

I was thinking about this shift this week when reading Noach, this week’s Torah portion. There after God flood Noah makes a sacrefice to God and in response God describes humanity. There we read:

The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to God’s self: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21).

While the result of not destroying the world is a good thing, what do we make of God’s assessment of human nature? The idea that we are evil from our youth implies a certain pathology of the human condition. When we are operating from this place of pathology our future is engraved and fixed in stone. How else might we understand our Torah portion?

On a related note in regard to the creation of human beings God remarks that we have become divine in nature. There we read, “Behold, man has become one of Us” (Gen. 3:22). When exploring this idea the Midrash says:

Scripture states elsewhere in allusion to this verse: Behold, this only have I found, that God made humanity upright (Eccles. 7:29); that is, the Holy One, blessed be God, who is called righteous and upright, created humanity in God’s own image so that humans might be upright and righteous like God. However, if you should ask: Why did God create the evil inclination, concerning which it is written: The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21)?, you say thereby: Since humanity is evil, who can make humanity good? The Holy One, blessed be God, contends: You make him evil! Why is it that a child of five, six, seven, eight, or nine years of age does not sin, but only after he reaches the age of ten and upward does the evil inclination begin to develop in him? (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 7:1)

This Midrash boldly seems to invert the idea from Noach as to the nature of humanities evil nature. According to this Midrash Human beings are actually born good and it is only later in life that they succumb to the evil inclination and sin. At the same time as a person grows in their practice they can build on our strengths and in so doing become truly free from sin. While fear of sin might be a good deterrent from destruction, we need a foundation of goodness upon which to build thriving lives.  Despite what others say about us or even what we say about ourselves we need to curate a positive understanding of the nature of human nature to help humanity thrive and manifest our divinity.

– Another blog post on Positive Psychology.

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Down Tower

In Noah, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Tower of Babel. Following the generations of the flood humanity united speaking a single language. They resolved to build a city with a tower. They wanted to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”( Genesis 11:4) God came down and saw what they are doing.  There we read:

And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Come let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech’.So God scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did confound the language of all the earth: and from there God scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:6-9)

While we can argue about their motivations in building this tower, for now, I want to think about what they were feeling after the tower came down. How did these people deal with being scattered all over the world and their inability to communicate with each other? It sounds horrible. The fear of being alone itself helps me understand their motivation to build the tower at the start of this story.

I was thinking about this feeling this week when I saw a video of the comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O’Brien Show. Louis C.K. gives a classic rant against cell phones pointing out why connected devices are especially “toxic” for kids. In this short 5-minute piece, which I encourage you to watch, he gives his insights about the role of technology in our lives.

He makes it sound so simple. Louis C.K. says:

I look around, pretty much 100% of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.

Why are we so afraid of being alone?  He goes on to say:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself, and not be doing something. That’s what the phones have taken away — is the ability to just sit there like this. That’s being a person, right?

Cell phones are toxic because we never experience being alone. I imagine this to be a similar feeling that they must have had after the Tower of Babel came down. Being in touch with this emptiness makes us want to fill that void with authentic and meaningful communication. If we are not in touch with being alone we will never truly appreciate the people in our lives. After the learning about theTower of Babel, you sort of want the cell tower to also fall. We would not have more meaningful relationships in our lives if the cell phones were not in the way? At the least we have Shabbat to unplug.


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