The Good Inclination and The Evil Inclination (Yetzer Hara, Yetzer Hatov)

This Shabbat we’re going to explore the concept of Duality in Judaism, starting with a schtikel (“little bit” in Yiddish) of Taoism.

The word “Tao” means “The Way,” as in the Way to cosmic harmony.

Jewish Law is called Halacha (Hebrew), which also means “The Way,” as in the Jewish Way to cosmic harmony. I love those interconnections!

According to Tao, all things exist as contradictory opposites. Be it biological (male/female), physical (hot/cold), or moral (good/bad), our universal existence is comprised of oppositional forces. The Yin Yang symbol has two dots of opposite duality within them. The Yin dot is within the Yang side and vise-versa.

In Judaism, moral/ethical duality is represented by yetzer hara יצר הרע (the evil inclination) and yetzer hatov יצר הטוב (the good inclination). These are not external forces (like Lucifer or “the devil made me do it”) — they are inclinations inherent in human nature.

One or the other can predominate, depending on the individual. Those inclined toward the evil inclination are obligated (Halachically) to control it through due diligence.

It reminds me of a quote by Sitting Bull:

Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, “the one I feed the most.”

Sitting Bull

The concept of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov may seem cut and dry, but there are nuances. The Jewish Sages cited examples where it was possible for (milder forms) of the evil inclination to produce a good outcome by default:

A man who is lustful, might get married and subsequently build a home and family with his wife.

A man who is greedy, may start a business, which creates jobs and boosts the local economy.

A man who is materialistic, will purchase items that keep others employed, companies in business and the economy robust.

For a person struggling with the evil inclination, the Sages prescribed putting conscious effort into performing mitzvot, especially tzedakah.

Where once his yetzer hara enticed him with the gufani (physical), now it turns him towards the ruchani (spiritual).

Gemara in Sukkah

Tzedakah is colloquially translated as “charity,” but the word actually means “justice.” Tzedakah (justice) is performed by giving money or other donations to assist individuals or communities in need. Tzedakah is so essential to Judaism the Talmud states:

Tzedakah is equal in importance to all other commandments combined.

Tractate Baba Bathra 9a

There are two (much lesser known) aspects of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, that resonate with my life experience.

1. A “macher” (Yiddish for ‘big shot’) is considered to have a greater propensity towards the evil inclination.

The greater the person, the greater his yetzer hara.

Sukkah 52b

The greater the person, the more Torah he knows, the higher the level of kedushah he’s attained, the more likely he is to esteem himself; and so the greater the danger of ego, arrogance and all the foolishness and destruction that come with it.

Oy. I’ve seen the damage done by macherim (big shots) of all faiths. Big shots with big heads. Some of the worst are religious big shots.

2. The evil inclination is greater on High Holy Days. (One would think it would be the opposite).

And the greater the day, the greater the yetzer hara. Such as on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and so on, the trials and disturbances are greater.

Rav Yisrael Salanter (1809 – 1883) – Talmudist and father of the Mussar movement in Orthodox Judaism.

Amen! Failure to ask forgiveness and make amends on High Holy Days devoted to repair, exacerbates the pain of those in need of closure.1 Lack of healing is one reason why numerous people (of all faiths) struggle with religious holidays.

Duality is a concept I’ve studied in Judaism and Taoism — but the two enumerated aspects above are the gems of wisdom and truth that really stand out for me.

©️ 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Footnote: 1 The ten days between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are High Holy Days devoted to turning over a new leaf and penitential prayers. Before the start of Yom Kippur we are to directly ask anyone we have hurt for forgiveness and make interpersonal amends.

27 thoughts on “The Good Inclination and The Evil Inclination (Yetzer Hara, Yetzer Hatov)

  1. Great article. Being a gentile, I feel a bit lost with some of the conversations in the comments section, but I always enjoy the posts. Very interesting to find out that Taoism and Judaism have more in common than I originally suspected. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Thank you!! I’m pretty keen on connecting the dots between Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism. It really makes my day to know that you enjoy the posts. Yay!! I am a happy camper. Enjoy your weekend! 🖖🙂🥳

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Interesting. I did an essay on my blog about Tao a while back after reading C.S. Lewis’ description of Christianity’s origins and what Jesus really meant (using dumbed-down generalizations here) and insisting that the word “Tao” was much closer to what was meant by living “The Way”, which is what the early Jewish sect after Jesus actually called their beliefs / selves. So much to learn. So much to learn. May your journey in The Way be joyous and fulfilling today, Jane

    Liked by 4 people

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      I didn’t know that about C.S. Lewis or the early, post-Jesus sect. Learning from each other is the best! I did know that Jesus said in the Christian bible, “I am the way, the truth and the light.” I remembered that when I read your comment. Also remembered that Hinduism is called the Eternal Way (Sanatana Dharma). My inter-religious explorations have taught me that all religions intersect. Thank you for being here on this journey with me! I’m enjoying your company very much. Stay well and stay safe. Rav brachot (abundant blessings) 🧡

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for broadening my range of the concept of good and evil. I note that Christians usually say good and evil, but you have reversed the order in Hebrew. My concept of good and evil has always been dualistic. Good equals creation, evil equals destruction. Good is life enhancing, evil is life diminishing. I like the term milder forms of the evil inclination and the way it can morph into positive outcomes. Makes me think of a hierarchy of good and evil, on a slippery slope from the mountain to the valley. The milder form, I guess, is knowing ourselves and subverting our bad attributes to good. Your use of the word macherim made me laugh, we have all known these types of people and worked with them. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great post. I was looking through my library, since purchasing my Kindle I only have religious and spiritual books in hardcover, having donated the remainder to the library. Lo and behold, I found an unread book entitled The Essential Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz, I must have picked up in a book sale. I am reading a chapter a day.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Great observation about the order. I’m used to saying it that way in Hebrew and never noticed it, until you pointed it out. Saying the evil one first underscores the priority of fighting against it. And the propensity of humankind perhaps? “Good is life enhancing, evil is life diminishing… Good equals creation, evil equals destruction.” Love this. Amen to that!! We all have a choice to be a builder or a destroyer.

      Oy veyismer. 🤪 Those macherim are everywhere aren’t they? 👿 I’ve had to deal with them in the workplace too.

      There is so much to love about your reflections!! Abundant blessings and thanks to you!

      Rabbi Steinsaltz is brilliant. Excellent book!!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. miriameliana

    Really good. Maybe putting oneself in someone else’s shoes before judging or playing Devil’s Advocate can help another person see the positive of something seemingly negative. Loved the Sitting Bull quote 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Thank you for your comment! It can be so challenging to see the positive sometimes (or the glimmer of it), especially with the current state of affairs. We do need to find ways to give each other hope. Glad you stopped by for a visti. 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Again, excellent work! Clear, compelling. I appreciate your emphasizing the relevance of the two influences. Which might seem obvious, though I think many of us hear the words and watch the Star Wars movies and don’t consider these for our lives. I think you also touch on something that many would be both challenged and encouraged by, and that is the explanation of why the holidays might be so hard. What keep them from being good for us may very well be internal and relational strife. I’d heard about the time before Yom Kippur for seeking forgiveness from other people before we seek forgiveness from God. You depict this so sensibly. And, yes, sadly and tragically, religious leaders are often those who exalt themselves the most or manipulate others to do it. I admire the connections you see all around, particularly with regard to Judaism and Taoism. And, yes to the comment above, in the New Testament early Christianity is (also) referred to as The Way. I hope you’re very well, enjoying Shabbat and the weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Shabbat Shalom! Oy…holidays are so tough for so many of us. I was talking about it to a neighbor once and she told me her church had special “Blue Christmas” services, for anyone struggling with painful life circumstances, profoundly triggered by the Christmas holiday. She said Blue Christmas is a tradition some churches have. I feel all houses of worship should adopt a similarly compassionate tradition for their own holidays.

      Many thanks for your inspirational comment! This work is my passion. Your reflections are filled with wisdom and understanding that comes shining through.There is so much wisdom in this comment section! Wishing you a pleasant and peaceful weekend.🌷

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I hadn’t heard the Rav Salanter quote. The former rabbi of my shul used to say the opposite, that you have no yetzer hara on Yom Kippur. (There is a gematria that is supposed to hint to this, but I can’t remember it. I’m not really into gematria these days.) However, this is only for things that are a genuine struggle for you between good and evil; if you do something wrong habitually to the extent that it’s not even a struggle, you will still be tempted to do it on Yom Kippur (or so he said).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Very true about those “who do wrong habitually.” I’m glad you mentioned that. Habitual behaviors become a way of life. Much of Rav Salanter’s wisdom speaks to me. I’m into Mussar as a path to tikkun olam and tikkun neshama. Rav Todot for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      I’m so glad you loved it!! Those words always make my day. Many thanks for your feedback and visit with me. Sending waves of chesed your way. 🥰

      Like

  7. Shaina

    I love your d’rash. It is all about not blaming satan or the devil and being accountable for our actions. It is a valuable concept. You demonstrate your spiritual skillfullness, once again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Many thanks and much appreciation to you for your inspiring words! You are so right — it’s all about personal accountability, not blame-shifting.

      Like

  8. Shaina

    A “Machar” is many times very arrogant. High Holy day, Machars , usually are not “willing” to make amends. They are not even cognizant of their hurtful actions to others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      So true! No self-awareness or even willingness to cultivate self-awareness. Oversized egos cancel out the self-awareness ‘gene.’ Awareness of the other is lacking too. Thank you for reading and weighing in! 🥰

      Like

  9. Phil Sutherland

    Great words! It gives a lot of food for thought. I get the idea that we as individuals are the ones with the internal conflicts between good and evil. It is easy to cast blame on some external force. But, I really do believe that the Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov can be so strong in one individual that they influence others. Perhaps there may not be any Satan, but, I do feel that there are outside influences that can draw you in and lower your resistance to suggestions, or persuade you into doing things that you should not do. I have met individuals that are almost hypnotic in their powerful words, actions, and influence over others. Hitler, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and many others throughout history, like Genghis Khan, Idi Amin, etc. held powerful sway over others. Some to the extent that they influenced entire cultures to evil. I don’t know the answer to that question. But, it strikes me as there is far more to this than meets the eye or can simply be explained by the two forces working within each person. I think we need to follow the admonitions to be very prudent in the persons we allow into our lives, the choices we make, and actions we take to prevent being influenced, or drawn toward the evil path. Men and women do have very strong inclinations as well, and when you subject your mind to things that attract or pull us to the evil side of those inclinations, our resistance is lowered and we may not have the will to get out of the situation because the draw is so strong. Add drugs or alcohol to that equation and the resistance is gone. That is why behaviors and examples are all throughout Torah as to what can happen when we go in the wrong direction and why we are strongly encouraged to follow certain guidelines to help us avoid bad choices or bad influences.

    I think that there is one more aspect that I feel is very apparent in today’s society and why we have faced the struggles we have. Society, as a whole, has gone in a total other direction where thing are allowed now that were never allowed before with strong prohibitions against them. That includes the fact that the moral guidelines and religious influences in our society have been pushed aside. It is just my feeling that when prohibitions are removed and people given free will to choose, the inclination toward evil becomes much stronger. Just my opinion, but, it seems that we are seeing that now around the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wild Pomegranate

      Some people (like the ones you mentioned) are just totally evil. Judaism definitely has a belief in evil energies (like the evil eye/ayin hara) and evil forces. In the Zohar evil is referred to as “sitra achra” (the other side) and “klipa” (shell), which conceals/covers/envelops the holy spark. Humans need guidelines and a value system that’s for sure. Now if only we could all live together on this planet in universal safety and peace. Thank you for all your thoughts and reflections! It’s nice to be on this spiritual journey together.

      Like

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