Yeitzer haRa

(This entry draws heavily from one posted a couple of weeks ago.)

I – Defining the Term

What is the Yeitzer haRa?

The simplest translation is the inclination to do evil.

But people do not inherently know what is evil and what is not. The tinoq shenishba, the child who was taken captive and raised by bandits or a person who otherwise lacked the proper upbringing to realize something was wrong, is not held as accountable for their sin as someone who did have a more proper upbringing. If the yeitzer hara were a part of the self that was sufficiently in heaven to know what was evil to motivate someone to do it, there would be no reason for such leniency.

The second notion would be that it is an inclination to do what the person believes is evil.

This doesn’t match actual experience, though. People need to rationalize their actions. No one chooses evil because it’s evil. They may choose wrongly because they are following a different notion of good; perhaps an aesthetic good rather than a moral one. But there is always some axis on which the person sees good in their choice. Chavah took the fruit of the tree of knowledge for this very reason, it was aesthetically pleasing — “good to look at and good to eat”.

Which leads one to conclude that the yeitzer hara is a drive to do something that often is evil. But this is quite a distance from our original definition. Is it justifiable?

As we will see in a moment, I believe that it’s justifiable on linguistic grounds. But also, I believe it must be true for a priori reasons. It is impossible for the mind to contain a complete model of itself. Therefore, when we speak of ideas like the yeitzer hara, we can only speak in terms of simplified models; ways of explicating only certain aspects of the problem.

The majority of this essay is a list of some ways of explaining what the yeitzer hara and yeitzer hatov are. I would not assert that the sources of each are necessarily arguing about the nature of man. In fact, I ascribe two of them to the same source — the Rambam! Rather, I believe that they are presenting different models, and at different times in our lives or even as we face different decisions in the same day, each may be useful in analyzing our motives and overcoming the destructive ones.
II – The Diqduq

A tzurah is a form, a yotzer someone who gives form. E.g. from Yamim Noraim davening, “kehinei kachomer beyad hayotzeir — for [we are like] clay in the hands of the Potter”. A yeitzer would be a causative conjugation, it causes something else to have a form. Like a cookie cutter, which leaves its form on the cookies it defines, rather than a potter. A template.

Second, the idiom as a whole is a semichut, an “attached” conjugation meaning “of”. As in “Benei Yisrael – Children of Israel”, “beis seifer — house of books (i.e. a school)”. The rules for hei hayedi’ah, the “ha-” prefix meaning “the”, on a semichut are non-intuitive for the English speaker. A “davar qodesh” is a “holy thing”, but “the holy thing” would require a hei on both words “hadavar haqodesh“. “Devar haqodesh” would be “a thing of the holy one”. So that “yeitzer hara” is not “the evil template”, as that would mean we would always find it conjugated as “hayeitzer hara“.

So, looking at the diqduq of the words, the most literal translation would be that the yeitzer hara is something that causes our actions to have an evil form, but isn’t necessarily evil itself. In fact, it would most probably describe a drive which is not evil, but only causes evil when it is used as a yeitzer, defining the shape and purpose of our actions. As Chazal say on the pasuq in Shema, “behol levavekha – bishnei yitzrekha“, loving Hashem with all your heart means loving Him with both yetzarim. Impossible if the yeitzer hara were inherently evil.

II – Giver and Taker

Man is inherently a dialectic being; it is inherent in the human condition that our behavior is characterizable by pairs of conflicting truths. It is this tension which gives us opportunity to choose. It is also a necessary consequence of our being recipients of Hashem’s good, and thus of His ability to be Giver. We receive His Image, and thus become givers.

This dichotomy, giving vs. taking, is the fundamental point in Rav Dessler’s “Qunterus haChesed“, a section of Michtav meiEilyahu vol. 1. To be a ba’al chesed, a giver, is the key to G-dliness. It is also a theme in Rav Shim’on Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher. Hashem gave us existence, and thus to be in His Image is to give to others. Chazal comment on the Chumash’s words “Qedoshim tihyu – you shall be holy” with “perushim tihyu — you shall be separated.” Rav Shim’on explains that holiness requires separation from taking anything that we do not need for the purpose of giving good to others.

To rest for the pleasure of resting is not holy, but to do so for the purpose of being able to give tomorrow, is. Holiness is thus proportional to one’s commitment to giving. Thus, one can take in a way that expresses love for Hashem, fulfilling “bekhol levavekha“.

IV – Spiritual and Animal

Rav Hirsch speaks of man’s animal side and man’s higher calling to ennoble himself. The Vilna Gaon defines nara”n similarly — the nefesh being the life-force we have in common with animals, the neshamah is our connection to heaven, and between them the ru’ach is the will which has the freedom to decide between them. (See also the Nara”n section of this blog.) In a totally different model, the Tanya makes a distinction between the nefesh E-lokis vs nefesh habeheimis, the Divine Soul vs the Animal Soul. (Each of which has their own nara”n. Nara”n is a concept dating back to the seifer haYetzirah, but by the time it reaches the acharonim many different opinions exist as to the parameters of each concept and their roles in the psyche.)

This is also very central to Victor Frankel’s pyschological model. As his book’s title presumes, man has a quest for Meaning no less innate than his quest for physical pleasures. That meaning could be defined religiously, or it could be like his description of his own drive to make it through the camp in Terezin just to see his wife again. But it’s a drive to live for more than just myself.

This dichotomy also maps directly to our concepts of yeitzer hara and yeitzer hatov as drives that, when used as goals, produce good or evil. Our physicality isn’t inherently evil, but to live for the sake of one’s physicality is. Similarly, spirituality can be abused, but a life of constantly striving to be elevated is a good one.

To love Hashem bekhol levavekha then refers to things like being able to enhance one’s Shabbos through the enjoyment of food, rest, and other physical pleasures.

In Shemoneh Peraqim (ch 3), the Rambam talks about man’s spiritual form (meaning one’s purpose which in turn determines one’s attributes) as the source of G-dliness. It is our form which is “in the Image of G-d”. It is our physical substance which is the source of sin.
And yet the Rambam’s introduction to his commentary on pereq Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 10) proves that people are more than simply clever mammals using examples of negative uses of the spiritual. The Rambam notes that people will often forgo physical pleasure for the sake of honor or revenge. So one sees there is something that overrides physical desires, proving the point. However, his examples of overriding motivations are both negative ones. Just as the yeitzer hara can be used for good, the yeitzer hatov can be used for evil.

V – Reason and Desire

Another dichotomy that is often mapped to the battle between the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara is the battle between reason and passion. Thinking through one’s actions vs. acting impetuously on a desire. Here the lesson of loving G-d even with one’s yeitzer hara is self evident. What is true love if not passionate?

The Rambam describes this dichotomy as well (Shemoneh Peraqim ch 2, Moreh Nevuchim 3:8). The Rambam follows Aristotle’s notion (N.E 1095a) that the problem with children is that they haven’t learned to think before acting, and therefore act on their passions, not the intellect.

I think the position I explained in my entry of two weeks ago, including Rav Yisrael Salanter’s comments on dimyon vs. muskal (imagination vs thought, where imagination includes the ability to create and recreate scenarios in general) is a variant on this theme. The Igeres haMussar opens with “A person is free in his dimyon and bound by his muskal.” The dimyon isn’t evil; as we saw, it is vehicle of prophecy. However, as a yeitzer, an end, it becomes the subject of Hashem’s warning that we need tzitzis so that “velo sasuru acharei levavkhem ve’akharei eineikhem — we not wander after our hearts and after our eyes. It is when the dimyon is allowed to run free rather than be harnessed that it becomes a yeitzer hara.

Both positions can be seen as being about a desire that a person ought to have been able to decide to overcome, but could not. The first is more straightforward, dealing with the desire directly. The latter looks back a step to dimyon as a key source of desire. And therefore its focus also includes being able to assert a filter between dimyon and desire.

VI – Summary

Man is basically dialectic in nature, a composite of conflicting definitions, self-images, and desires. (Why that’s true will, G-d willing, be the topic of a future entry.) When facing a moral choice, one desire will prove superior to the others. By looking at how various ba’alei mesorah divide these choices, we can be equipped with tools to analyze and improve our decision making.

There are two parts to the problem, clearly assessing one’s desires, and being able to look beyond what one wants to be true to objectively be able do so. The above ideas suggest the following tools.

  • Assessing the value of the conflicting desires, which axis of values are each drawing from?
    • Am I trying to give to others or improve the world around me, or am I trying to get something for myself at their possible expense?
    • Am I choosing physical comfort or pleasure over spiritual ones?
    • Aesthetic pleasure over moral good?
  • Reengaging intellect
    • The classical tool of listing pros and cons will help identify which is the more reasonable choice. In this way, we can force ourselves to see if we are ranking desires objectively, or if one desire is prejudicing our thought.
    • Hisbonenus:Since the desire that is coloring my ability to think was created by dimyon, my imagining the joy of fulfilling it, can I use that same power of dimyon to redirect that passion? (Another topic already promised for a future entry.)
    • Hispa’alus: By studying something passionately or creatively I can create an emotional investment in it. In this way I can build on the positive desire. See my earlier description of hispa’alus in the Ki Seitzei issue of Mesukim MiDevash.

The two pieces of the puzzle are also the topics of two chapters of Shemoneh Peraqim. In ch. 1, the Rambam discusses mistakes in thought which lead to sin, whereas in ch. 2 he discusses “diseases of the soul” which are sensory and emotional orders. Opposite order, same two ideas.

There is a third possible tactic. It hasn’t yet been discussed in this essay, because until now we took it for granted that the person is consciously making a moral choice. However, it is possible to avoid the problem.

Rav Dessler notes that consicous decision-making really only occurs in small regions of the choices we face. Those in which are desires are balanced enough that there is an active war between them. With each decision that point moves, either in one direction or the other, as that desire is reinforced.

  • Moving the bechirah point
    • How can I use habit to avoid having to struggle to overcome the temptation? This is key to the mussar practice of accepting qabbalos on oneself, small practices that gradually move my bechirah point on the topic. The practice of qabbalos is described more fully in the Eikev issue of Mesukim MiDevash.

Afterward: The Origin of the Yeitzer haRa
The question of where the yeitzer hara comes from can be asked in two ways — historically, and developmentally. Both were addressed in the past.
The historical origin is with eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This internalized the mixture of motivations, some good, some evil. See “The Origins of Imperfection“. That essay is primarily about the physical vs. spiritual dichotomy.

However, until that dichotomy is internalized with the first sin, choice was about truth vs. falsehood. Which was the greater good, not eating the fruit, or was the snake’s rationale the truer story? One can also interpret the transition in that essay as being about the dichotomy between passion and thought. Adam before the sin was able to think clearly, without desire clouding his judgment. Adam after the sin is a war of conflicting desires, and therefore needs tools to help reengage unbiased thought to choose between them.

These are the two parts to the problem I listed in the summary — Adam’s internalization of counterproductive desires, and the consequent inability to rely on intellect directly parallel our need to rank our desires
The developmental origin of the yeitzer hatov occurs when a child reaches 12 or 13. I suggested that this is because it can not exist without the potential to rebel. A child who hasn’t yet tasted teenage rebellion behaves because their sources of authority tell them to — parents, teachers, peer acceptance. To truly choose good, it has to be in a framework where the source of the choice is internal, not imposed.
(With thanks to R’ Daniel Eidensohn, compiler of the “Yad Moshe”, for clearing up some of my misunderstanding of the Rambam.)

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  1. Der Alter says:

    I always thought that yetzer is connecte to yetzirah in the sense that it is the creative force. The creative force in an individual is his essential Tzelem Elokim – used properly, it is tov; improperly, ra.

  2. micha says:

    Der Alter,

    How then do you explain the use of yeitzer, causer of forms, rather than the more pro-active yotzeir, shaper.You also seem to suggest that there is only one yeitzer, our G-dlike creative force, and ra vs tov describes how it is used. This shifts the human decision of good vs evil out of the domain of choosing between the two yetzarim. Doesn’t that run counter to the language of ma’amarei Chazal?

    I am instead relying more on a model like the Meshekh Chokhmah (on the pasuqna’aseh adam“) that our G-dliness is in our free choice. This then is pulled by two yetzarim, and therefore can leave differing effects on the world.

    Perhaps the topic needs more hammering out on a discussion venue like Avodah.

  3. Der Alter says:

    I think that Chazal are telling us that there are different sources in which the creative force can be rooted, not that the force emanates unified and only then takes a specific good or bad path.

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