Tsuy­oku Nari­tai! (I Want To Be­come Stronger)

In Ortho­dox Juda­ism there is a say­ing: “The pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion is to the next one as an­gels are to men; the next gen­er­a­tion is to the pre­vi­ous one as don­keys are to men.” This fol­lows from the Ortho­dox Jew­ish be­lief that all Judaic law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. After all, it’s not as if you could do an ex­per­i­ment to gain new halachic know­ledge; the only way you can know is if someone tells you (who heard it from someone else, who heard it from God). Since there is no new source of in­form­a­tion, it can only be de­graded in trans­mis­sion from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

Thus, mod­ern rab­bis are not al­lowed to over­rule an­cient rab­bis. Crawly things are or­din­ar­ily un­kosher, but it is per­miss­ible to eat a worm found in an apple—the an­cient rab­bis be­lieved the worm was spon­tan­eously gen­er­ated in­side the apple, and there­fore was part of the apple. A mod­ern rabbi can­not say, “Yeah, well, the an­cient rab­bis knew diddly-squat about bio­logy. Over­ruled!” A mod­ern rabbi can­not pos­sibly know a halachic prin­ciple the an­cient rab­bis did not, be­cause how could the an­cient rab­bis have passed down the an­swer from Mount Sinai to him? Know­ledge de­rives from au­thor­ity, and there­fore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes.

When I was first ex­posed to the an­gels-and-don­keys pro­verb in (re­li­gious) ele­ment­ary school, I was not old enough to be a full-blown athe­ist, but I still thought to my­self: “Torah loses know­ledge in every gen­er­a­tion. Science gains know­ledge with every gen­er­a­tion. No mat­ter where they star­ted out, sooner or later sci­ence must sur­pass Torah.”

The most im­port­ant thing is that there should be pro­gress. So long as you keep mov­ing for­ward you will reach your des­tin­a­tion; but if you stop mov­ing you will never reach it.

Tsuy­oku naritai is Japan­ese. Tsuy­oku is “strong”; naru is “be­com­ing” and the form naritai is “want to be­come”. To­gether it means “I want to be­come stronger” and it ex­presses a sen­ti­ment em­bod­ied more in­tensely in Japan­ese works than in any Western lit­er­at­ure I’ve read. You might say it when ex­press­ing your de­term­in­a­tion to be­come a pro­fes­sional Go player—or after you lose an im­port­ant match, but you haven’t given up—or after you win an im­port­ant match, but you’re not a ninth-dan player yet—or after you’ve be­come the greatest Go player of all time, but you still think you can do bet­ter. That is tsuy­oku naritai, the will to tran­scend­ence.

Tsuy­oku naritai is the driv­ing force be­hind my es­say The Proper Use of Hu­mil­ity, in which I con­trast the stu­dent who humbly double-checks his math test, and the stu­dent who mod­estly says “But how can we ever really know? No mat­ter how many times I check, I can never be ab­so­lutely cer­tain.” The stu­dent who double-checks his an­swers wants to be­come stronger; he re­acts to a pos­sible in­ner flaw by do­ing what he can to re­pair the flaw, not with resig­na­tion.

Each year on Yom Kip­pur, an Ortho­dox Jew re­cites a lit­any which be­gins Ashamnu, bagadnu, ga­za­lnu, dibarnu dofi, and goes on through the en­tire Hebrew al­pha­bet: We have ac­ted shame­fully, we have be­trayed, we have stolen, we have slandered...

As you pro­nounce each word, you strike your­self over the heart in pen­it­ence. There’s no ex­emp­tion whereby, if you man­age to go without steal­ing all year long, you can skip the word ga­za­lnu and strike your­self one less time. That would vi­ol­ate the com­munity spirit of Yom Kip­pur, which is about con­fess­ing sins—not avoid­ing sins so that you have less to con­fess.

By the same token, the Ashamnu does not end, “But that was this year, and next year I will do bet­ter.”

The Ashamnu bears a re­mark­able re­semb­lance to the no­tion that the way of ra­tion­al­ity is to beat your fist against your heart and say, “We are all biased, we are all ir­ra­tional, we are not fully in­formed, we are over­con­fid­ent, we are poorly cal­ib­rated...”

Fine. Now tell me how you plan to be­come less biased, less ir­ra­tional, more in­formed, less over­con­fid­ent, bet­ter cal­ib­rated.

There is an old Jew­ish joke: Dur­ing Yom Kip­pur, the rabbi is seized by a sud­den wave of guilt, and pros­trates him­self and cries, “God, I am noth­ing be­fore you!” The can­tor is like­wise seized by guilt, and cries, “God, I am noth­ing be­fore you!” See­ing this, the jan­itor at the back of the syn­agogue pros­trates him­self and cries, “God, I am noth­ing be­fore you!” And the rabbi nudges the can­tor and whis­pers, “Look who thinks he’s noth­ing.”

Take no pride in your con­fes­sion that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-aware­ness of your flaws. This is akin to the prin­ciple of not tak­ing pride in con­fess­ing your ig­nor­ance; for if your ig­nor­ance is a source of pride to you, you may be­come loathe to re­lin­quish your ig­nor­ance when evid­ence comes knock­ing. Like­wise with our flaws—we should not gloat over how self-aware we are for con­fess­ing them; the oc­ca­sion for re­joicing is when we have a little less to con­fess.

Other­wise, when the one comes to us with a plan for cor­rect­ing the bias, we will snarl, “Do you think to set your­self above us?” We will shake our heads sadly and say, “You must not be very self-aware.”

Never con­fess to me that you are just as flawed as I am un­less you can tell me what you plan to do about it. After­ward you will still have plenty of flaws left, but that’s not the point; the im­port­ant thing is to do bet­ter, to keep mov­ing ahead, to take one more step for­ward. Tsuy­oku naritai!

Part of the se­quence Chal­len­ging the Difficult

Next post: “Tsuy­oku vs. the Egal­it­arian In­stinct