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Getting to the Point with the Yetzer Hara

Ever wonder why we’re here? No, really. Or at least, what we’re supposed to be doing as long as we’re here, on this planet together? Some people look at all the evil and unhappiness in the world and come to the conclusion that there isn’t a point, or for that matter, God.

Judaism, however, might cite the same things as evidence of why there is a point. Judaism posits that human beings have two motivating forces: the Yetzer Hatov, or good inclination; and the Yetzer Hara, or evil inclination. You might think life would be paradisiacal with just the Yetzer Hatov.

But according to Rabbinic Judaism, not much would get done without its evil twin. Besides being (in the minds of the ancient rabbis) the impetus for creativity, competition, and just plain getting things done, without the Yetzer Hara, growth and change can’t happen. There’s a familiar midrash (Biblical commentary) that tells one day the rabbis captured the Yetzer Hara, and as long as they had it locked away not a single egg was laid in the land. So from a Jewish standpoint, for very practical purposes we’re stuck with both inclinations.

The rabbis might say the interplay between these two inner drives determines our behavior in this world. And to my mind, our success as human beings. I am often in awe of the (few) people I meet who express kindness, love, and a will towards justice as their basic and consistent nature. The baseline behavior of most of us, of course, is more volatile and conflicted, and I wonder how some people manage to achieve that higher-minded consistency. For me, it’s a goal, one to which I sometimes feel closer, and sometimes from which I feel very far, indeed.

I’ve come to see my success or failure at achieving that baseline of kindness as a result of how mindful I decide to be about managing the interplay between Yetzer Hatov and Yetzer Hara. There are two battlegrounds I’ve come to recognize–internal and external. Becoming what most major religions might call a righteous person is not just about refraining from giving your inner evil twin free rein to criticize, gossip about, and ignore your emotional effect on other people. It’s also about how you react to the Yetzer Hara that you see in other people.

That’s the part that trips me up most. Just when I think I’m achieving a day of kindness, some bonehead fellow planet-sharer goes and does something so less than tov, that I want to push back, hard. At these times, often I give my own evil inclination license to determine my actions. It feels great at the time but never really goes well in the end. Sometimes I take a higher road. Whichever I do, I’m always aware I’m making a decision about how to react. It’s just not always an easy decision in the heat of the moment.

Maybe that struggle is why we’re here. Maybe we’re here together on this planet to learn how to control our destructive inclinations, to harness them for higher purposes, thus transforming ourselves–and our relationships with our fellow human beings–for the better. Why? Maybe for some cosmic reason that has to do with our true spiritual natures that we can only guess at while we’re temporarily here living in this earthly training ground. Or it could just be that God’s cable is out and watching over our struggles is as good entertainment as anything.

Either way, it’s clear the outcome of transformation like that is love. In fact, love has to be an input, too, or what are we really learning? So maybe that’s the point, we’re here simply to learn how to love–both ourselves and each other. Although that’s a nice thought, it certainly puts the importance of watching your behavior in perspective. As my rabbi would say, how well we treat each other is a measure of our success of reaching out for God. God dwells in the space between us and we pull ourselves closer to God by pulling ourselves closer to each other.

Maxine, a reader from Tasmania, Australia (who had the wonderful fortune of completing her conversion to Judaism yesterday) shared with me a similar perspective written by Rabbi Haim Fabrizio Cipriani, the rabbi of Lev Chadash, Italy’s first Progressive Movement congregation, and also the author of Italy’s first Progressive prayerbook, Siddur Derech Haim. In the notes to the new siddur, Rabbi Cipriani talks about the symbolic nature of tzitzit, the ritual fringes worn by traditionally observant Jews,

“They represent the extremities, our point of contact with the external world, and they remind us that this boundary between us and the external reality is and should remain a sacred space inspired by the values of Torah.” (translation Maxine’s)

If you believe the space in which we connect with the outside world is sacred, then every thought and action counts. At every moment, we can decide to give in to the mundane or to recognize within it that which is holy. Life, itself, becomes a prayer.

I’ve believed just that for a long time. In fact, it’s the reason I wear my kippah 24/7–my ADHD brain needs an ever-present reminder of my ability to pull myself closer to God and fellow humans if I so choose. I have to be reminded to choose, as I think do we all.

The Amidah, Judaism’s long central prayer said while standing (the name means “standing” in Hebrew), speaks to our inability to be perfect in this regard. Among the blessings following the main prayer is R’tzei, a plea for God to find our prayer–and it would seem by extension our lives–acceptable.

At synagogue, our cantor chants the blessing as a solo, and often almost brings me to tears. Every day during my morning prayers, however, I pause and warble my way through R’tzei. To tell the truth, it’s the most emotionally impactful part of the entire service, for me. I have no impressive voice, but my emotional experience of the blessing is my plea to continue to learn to control my Yetzer Hara, and lead an increasingly kind and just life. Someday, I may actually get there. For now, here’s my R’tzei.

(Reading this post via RSS? See the video here.)


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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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6 replies

  1. There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time–much longer, even, than I’ve been officially Jewish. Writing this post really made things clear to me about what’s been going on inside, the nature of and tenor of everyday life, and the choices that we have every opportunity to make on a daily basis–even on a second-by-second basis–about how we live our lives. About how we allow God’s light to shine through our interactions with others; about how well we allow ourselves to recognize the holy that is always hidden within the mundane.

    Everybody should do one great thing in their lives. I haven’t done mine yet. But now, I’m finally considering attempting it. More to come…

    1. mike, what a wonderful blog! i found you through the video of you singing “rtzei” (which you did very well!) because i was reviewing one of my videos where a few of us sing my own version of it and was sending the link to a friend whose temple choir may want to sing it, and i really enjoyed reading this post. so, what have you attempted since writing your last comment here? i’m wondering if you did one great thing in your life yet that you want to share. or perhaps i need to catch up on more recent posts? hmm…take care! jill

  2. Michael, this is really beautiful. Both the prayer and the ideas. Honestly, I understand the idea of Yetzer Hara much more intuitively than I understand Christianity’s idea of total depravity. In one sense, they’re similar, in that they’re saying everyone has some bad in them, some less than holy inclination. But it makes more sense to me what you’re saying – that these inclinations cause growth, cause the world to keep moving. That they’re all a part of what God is up to in the world, and how we deal with the Yetzer Hara we get every day creates our own growth, our own choices to do good or continue with hurt.

    My best friend and I have a “heretic’s Bible study” each week, where we study the Bible but aren’t afraid to say what we really think, even if it wasn’t what we were taught in church. We are meeting today, and I’m going to send this to her to read. I know she will find it incredibly meaningful as well, and we’ll probably discuss it for an hour at least!

    Thank you! You’ve changed my day today, for sure.

    1. You’re welcome. I’m really happy the post had such meaning for you. Funny thing, what you two consider a “heretic’s” Bible study would be the norm for a Torah (i.e. Hebrew Bible) study session. That’s because a central tenet of Judaism is to question and struggle with faith and religious meaning.

      Because of my Christian background, when I first began my conversion journey, my initial reaction was, “You mean we’re really allowed to doubt and question?” The answer, of course, is yes, and that’s probably one of the more significant differences between Judaism and Christianity–and one about which most non-Jews are unaware.

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