Monday, March 24, 2008

I am not evil... am I?

Since childhood, I’ve been taught that the Yetzer haRa (evil inclination, evil creation) is not me; the push not to be controlled, not to listen, but rather to act to feed my more base desires actually comes from a separate entity which is there to challenge my pure neshamah (soul).

This paints the yetzer hara sort of like the cartoon image of the devil, complete with bad sunburn, pitchfork and trident, perched astride your shoulder and whispering in your ear, “Take it. Go ahead, take it!”

This also fits any number of talmudic passages, such as the gemara (end of Succah) about the death of the yetzer hara, and the several passages that identify the Yetzer haRa with the angel of death and the Satan (whatever that is). It also fits the gemara’s contention (Berachos) that a person has both yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (good inclination, good creation) inserted into him at different stages of maturity.

The image is also consistent with biblical language, from the consumption/internalization of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (more on this later), to Zecharyah’s description of a רוח הטומאה, a spirit of impurity, which will ultimately be banished from the land.

But I’ve had to wonder over the years about the accuracy of this description:

True, we say that our souls are pure נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא, but couldn’t there be some other aspect of our being, if only our bodies/brains, that might be working at having us fulfill illicit fantasies? Something that doesn’t possess its own intelligence, but is a natural part of our systems?

Further, don’t I possess an id that wants to be fed? Don’t my appetites have something to do with me, personally?

Is this exernalization just meant to be a helpful image, or is there something concrete in identifying the yetzer hara as an external entity?

And then I read an interesting article here (got there through this wonderful blog) about externalizing alcoholism, and possibly depression, identifying them as independent entities which lay siege to our psyches.

As Dr. Isabella Mori notes in that article, “there is research that shows that people who attribute their misfortune to outside sources tend to be happier. viewed from a certain perspective, that makes intuitive sense, too: the opposite of attributing misfortune to an outside source is often a guilt-infused attribution (“it’s all my fault”).

Speaking from my own subjective experience, it’s certainly true that I can feel better about myself, and about my chances for future improvement, if I externalize the sin – whether the sin really comes about because “I” want it, or because I am “talked into it” by an outside yetzer hara.

More creatively, I also see externalization as a rollback of the Adam/Chavah consumption of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

As some explain, the change that occurs when Adam/Chavah eat from the fruit is that humanity internalizes the desire to veer from Divine direction. Instead of seeing treif, for example, as something objectively attractive, we now see it as tasty, something we want for ourselves. The desire becomes much harder to defeat, because it is pitched as our desire.

By externalizing the yetzer hara, then, I succeed in identifying it as something outside myself, and separating it from any personal desire of mine. I reverse the effects of that Edenic fruit. (Of course, one must then ask whether, to be honest, we ought to do the same with the yetzer hatov…?)

An interesting proposition.


  1. Sounds like there are two different questions:

    1. Is the yetzer ha-ra truly external to us, or part of our human nature?

    2. Are we more able, likely, or willing to act against the yetzer ha-ra (whatever it is) if we think of it as an outside force, than as an integrated part of ourselves?

    Number 1 is a metaphysical question, number 2 is a pragmatic one. The sages, I believe, would be equally interested in both. But which one is more important when you're advising congregants?

  2. Tzipporah-
    Thanks for your comment; the latter, of course.

  3. Of course the opposite could result as well. If you externalize you become a victim of circumstances which leads to passivity and apathy. Whereas if you internalize it and see it as something completely dependent upon your own will and choice, then you are faced with a very clear conflict that you must either win or lose.
    Losing is still easier, though.

  4. thank you, a most interesting commentary, and i found the reference to the fruit of evil quite illuminating. i've alerted my commenters to your article.

    my knowledge of jewish theology is extremely limited but from what i recall, there is quite a bit of room for free will. how does this relate to the concepts of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov?

  5. Dr. Mori-
    Thank you for both comment and link (although I'm not sure the link is set up correctly?).

    The free will/yetzer question is a very good one. One popular understanding was articulated well by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, some 70 years ago. He explained that each Yetzer pulls a person in a certain direction, and is augmented or diminished by the weight of a person's experience and environment. In some (many?) cases, the weight of all of those factors eliminates any real free choice. In other cases, free choice is exercised in balancing all of those factors and then choosing to make a decision.

    In other words: If I had been raised by pickpockets, had conducted a successful career as a pickpocket, and possessed (note the externalization!) a yetzer hara which encouraged me to pickpocket, but then I heard a lecture on honesty and property rights, my yetzer hatov would stand against my pickpocketing, and I would then have to choose - exercising free will - between these two sides.

  6. sorry for taking so long to reply. my yetzer hara likes to pull me in the direction of neglect, forgetfulness and procrastination :)

    (hm, new interesting thought: how does that relate to the "character defects" in 12 step programs?)

    thanks so much for bringing up rabbi eliyahu dessler's explanations of free will. i will investigate this further. adds some dimension to the "just say no" idea, doesn't it?