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.
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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.