One of the first stories I can recall learning as a child was the familiar tale of the scorpion and the frog.
One day, the story goes, a scorpion set out on a journey but was stuck upon reaching the bank of a river. As he stood trying to figure out his next step he saw a frog sitting nearby.
“Hellooo Mr. Frog!” called the scorpion. “Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the river?”
“Well now, Mr. Scorpion! How do I know that if I try to help you, you won’t try to kill me?” asked the frog hesitantly.
“Because,” the scorpion replied, “If I try to kill you, then I too will die, for you see I cannot swim!”
The frog saw the logic in what the scorpion said and replied, “Alright then…”
The scorpion crawled onto the frog’s back and the two set out across the river.
Halfway across, however, the frog suddenly felt a sharp sting in his back as a numbness began to creep into his limbs.
Croaked the frog, “Why on earth did you do that?”
The scorpion shrugged, and said, “I could not help myself. It is my nature.”
The rabbis of old debated human nature. They understood that we all have the capacity to choose whether we are the frog or we will be the scorpion. In one Midrash they write:
R. Simon said: When the Holy One was about to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and companies, some of them saying, “Let humanity be created,” while others urged, “Let humanity not be created.”
Truth said, “Let humanity not be created, because people’s nature is falsehood.”
Righteousness said, “Let humanity be created, because humanity will do righteous deeds.”
Peace said, “Let humanity not be created, because humanity will be all strife.”
The elder R. Huna of Sepphoris said: While the ministering angels were debating what God might expect from humanity, the Holy One created Adam and then said: What are you debating? Humanity has already been made.
Does humanity have the capacity to be good, selfless and caring? The rabbis of old said yes.
Does humanity have the potential to be cold, callous and uncaring? The rabbis of old said yes.
Who we are and how we behave is, they taught us, a choice we make. Like the frog we can be can be trusting, kind and caring. But, like the scorpion, we also have the capacity to be self-consumed.
We are living in a time when the scorpion-nature of humanity is increasingly on display. But just as God did not give up on us simply because the angels were concerned, we too cannot simply throw our hands up and accept the growing callousness.
It will take work to bring civility back to our discourse, but as we learn in the small section of the Talmud known as Pirke Avot, “Even if it is not up to us to complete a task we are still required to do whatever we can to move in that direction.”
May our response to the growing incivility in our nation be more civility. And may our example encourage others to channel their “better angels” as well.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen