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Jewish World Review
Sept. 23, 2011
/ 24 Elul, 5771
Why man is greater than the angels
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
In Judaism, bad urges and ideas are not flaws that must be banished
For this commandment that I command you today it is not hidden
and it is not distant. It is not in heaven . . . Rather it is very near to you
in your mouth and your heart to perform it.
In psychology we find discussion of ''the disowned self;'' i.e., there are facets of
an individual's personality which one may deny having. There may be a
feeling that is so repulsive to us, that we cannot admit, even to ourselves, that
we are capable of having anything so abhorrent. Ideas and feelings such as these may be repressed; i.e., they are buried in the subconscious part of the mind,
hopefully never to come to one's awareness.
An idea buried in the subconscious does not just remain dormant. Rather, it
seeks to break into consciousness. A person must exert energy in order to keep
the idea repressed, and sometimes one may develop one or more defenses to
reinforce the repression. These defenses are often the cause of psychological
There is a much more efficient way of managing unacceptable ideas and feelings.
A person should realize that a human being is a composite creature, consisting
of an essentially animal body and a Divine human spirit. The body has all the
desires and impulses of an animal, and the function of the spirit is to master these,
and ideally, to channel these energies constructively. Lust can be transformed into
desires for spiritual goals, anger can be converted to intolerance of injustice, envy
can be directed to wishing to achieve the spiritual heights of tzaddikim (the truly righteous), etc.
impulse can be sublimated, but instead of sublimation operating on a subconscious
level, it can be a conscious process. As long as an impulse is in the
subconscious and a person is not aware of its existence, there is an internal
struggle against an unknown enemy. If the idea or feeling can be admitted to
consciousness, one is then in a better position to deal with it.
The Midrash says that when Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah (Bible), the
heavenly angels objected, saying to G-d, ''The Torah is too holy to be given to
mortals who will not appreciate it and revere it. Let the Torah remain here, among
us.'' G-d told Moses to rebut the angels' argument. Moses said, ''The Torah says
'You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.' Does that apply to you? The Torah says,
'You shall not steal.' Are you capable of stealing anything? The Torah says, 'You
shall not murder.' Can you kill one another?'' With this argument, Moses triumphed
over the angels and brought the Torah to us.
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The point of this Midrash is that angels are totally spiritual and do not need a
Torah. It is precisely because of the animal component in man that we need a
Torah. If a person wishes to know what impulses are part of human nature, he need
only read the 365 prohibitions of the Torah. Every one of them is a commandment
to avoid doing something which our animal body desires! Why, then, should a
person disown any feeling as though having it means that one is decadent? There
is no reason to disown any thought or feeling. We need only realize that this
originated from our animal-like body, and that it is our duty to master it.
Tiferes Yisrael on the Mishnah cites a Midrash that a king who had heard of
Moses' greatness sent his artists to the Israelite encampment in the desert to draw
a picture of Moses. When they returned, he gave the picture to his physiognomists,
the wise men who were capable of describing a person's character by a study of his
face. The physiognomists reported that this picture was of a person who was
narcissistic, arrogant, lustful and capable of the worst kind of behavior. This was so
incongruous with what he had heard about Moses that he decided to see for
Upon meeting Moses, he saw that the picture his artists had drawn was precise to
the minutest detail. He asked Moses how his physiognomists could have been so
wrong. Moses explained that the physiognomists can describe only the character
traits with which a person was born. ''All those things they said of me are innate. I
was born with all those traits. However, I transformed them all and channeled them
toward positive and desirable goals'' (Tiferes Yisrael, end of Kiddushin).
This is what Moses was telling the Israelites. ''The Torah is not in heaven. It was
not intended for angels who have no improper impulses. It is a Torah for mortals,
for human beings whose animal bodies can generate desires that a person may
wish to disown as being alien. It is not necessary to do so. We have the strength
and capacities to be master over our behavior.
''It is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to perform it.''
Maimonides says that every person can be like Moses. What he means by this is that
every person is capable of consciously sublimating all the drives that originate
from our physical bodies. There is no need to disown any part of one's self.
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Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 62 books to his credit, including "Twerski on Chumash" (Bible), from which this was excerpted (Sales of this book help fund JWR).
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