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