Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The yetzer harah isn't all that bad

Ladybug 2010, Teneya Rehberg
It may be a bug, but it's beneficial

The yetzer harah, usually translated as the "evil inclination," has gotten a bad reputation over the years.  It's often equated with, or even used in a sentence in place of, HaSatan (the devil); as in, the yetzer harah made me do it.

Yetzirah is one of Hebrew's words for creation, along with bri'ah.  Bri'ah is like creating something from nothing, while yetzirah is more like something from something.  Yetzer is then the creative force inside of each person—that which enables us to continue the creation process with what G-d has already made—and is generally split in half and labeled as good (tov) and bad (rah).

Tov is a word you'll hear a lot in Hebrew: from boker tov (good morning) to lailah tov (good night), and all through the story of creation in Bereshit (Genesis).  After each day, G-d sits back and says it's all good.  A painter may not know what his work of art will look like in the end, but was G-d actually surprised that His finished product had turned out right?  I think not.  Rather, it was a declaration that each creation was complete and ready to fulfill its purpose in the world.

The first time that something is the opposite of tov, that it is bad, is man.  No, this isn't a feminist post.  Man and woman were still one at that time, joined at the hip…or ribcage, or whatever.  Just as G-d (masculine) and His Shechina (Divine Presence, a feminine word) are not separate entities, we were created in the full image of the Almighty.  But we couldn't take it, felt too alone.  So G-d split us into two bodies, with half our souls in each it seems.  Was man actually bad?  I think he just wasn't tov, couldn't fulfill his purpose in this world the way that all the other creations were ready to do.  So if rah is the opposite of tov, what does it really mean?
On Rosh Hashana, when we blow the shofar (ram's horn), there are three sounds that are called out and trumpeted for all to hear.  One of them, teru'ah, shares the same root as the word rah (in Hebrew, the letters resh and ayin: רע).  Following the strong, solid teki'ah, teru'ah is a broken blast, though less choppy than shvarim (lit. splinters).
Broken.  What do people do with broken things?  Usually throw them away, or give them to a thrift store for someone else to fix.  Your yetzer harah is broken, hollow, needy.  But don't think for one moment that you don't need it.
There's a story from the days of Ezra, when the men of the Great Assembly who had returned from exile hunted down and captured the yetzer harah.  They thought they would fix all the world's problems and that everyone would now only do good things.  Then they saw that people stopped building houses, chickens stopped laying eggs, no children were born; b'kitzur (in short), daily life was no good and they released it to roam the world once again.
Your yetzer harah says, "I'm hungry, I'm empty," and your yetzer tov makes sure that you're eating kosher, healthy food.  Your yetzer harah says, "I'm lonely, I need intimacy," and your yetzer tov searches for the other half of your soul and stays true to him/her.  Your yetzer harah drives you to do, touch, taste, feel, create while your yetzer tov is guiding these desires so that the outcome brings you closer to G-d and living in peace with others.
It's not a war between good and evil.  If you starve your yetzer harah though, it may turn into somewhat of a monster—ravenously searching for whatever it can get its hands on.  You have to feed it, to pat it on the back and say "thanks for helping me get to where I am in my life now."  Have you thanked your yetzer harah today?


  1. give your yetzir harah a cookie. hee.

  2. This is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing. Where did you get this information from? Did you learn it? Did you write it yourself? sources?

    Way to go!
    And I wana read the rest of your blog too!
    Great work!

  3. RE: three full-time jobs; their names are Teneya, Puriel and Hemdiya.
    How beautifully put and how profound!
    I wish every mother was so proud!

  4. I just loved what you wrote about Yetzer Harah. Someone's finally explained it to me in terms that I can understand!

  5. This is really beautiful... and doesn't demonize that which is very really and very normal.

  6. Great piece but one question about what you wrote at the end (and
    maybe this applies only to men) the Gemara states אבר אחד יש באדם
    משביעו רעב מרעיבו שבע, man has one organ, if he satisfies it, he will
    be hungry, if he starves it, he will be satisfied. This statement
    implies that one should not feed his yeitzer!

  7. Thanks everyone! I'm glad that you enjoyed this.

    @Chayudis: The story about Ezra was told to me by my husband and the rest are bits and pieces of things that I've patched together along the way in my life and learning.

    @Binyomin: Whether or not we were to say that R' Yochanan's statement applies to men, I have a hard time saying that any particular body part = yetzer harah. I think this connection was made out of the (not very Jewish) view that our natural desires are bad. There's no mitzvah for a Jew to be a monk. We simply have to use our yetzer tov to properly channel the way that our yetzer harah wants to fill the void inside.

    @Deborah: Bring on the cookies!