Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Necessary Evil: The Yetzer ha-Ra

Last week I explained that in Judaism ha-Satan, the Adversary, was one of the “severe” agents of God. Another such harsh but necessary force in God’s creation is the Yetzer ha-Ra, which is variously translated as the “Evil Impulse,” the “Evil Desire,” the “Selfish Desire” or just “Desire.” It is that aspect of nature, but especially human nature, which drives us to compete, to fight, to possess, but most of all to desire sexual gratification.
[Postcard by Jungenstil artist Moses Ephraim Lilien]

Though it is counter-balanced by the Yetzer ha-Tov, the “altruistic desire,” it is nonetheless the source of much of the grief in human life – lust, violence, selfishness, vengeance, and ambition. One would think that humanity would be truly better off if we could destroy this impulse. I always think in this context of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It has struck me that Lennon is thinking of something akin to the Yetzer when he wrote that song. Imagine if human being were finally free of all the selfish drives? No thoughts of property, security, self-aggrandizement or the future? Wouldn’t things be perfect, or at least a whole lot better? Is Lennon right? Well, in fact, the Sages of Talmudic times anticipated Lennon by about 1600 years and imagined just such a scenario. This is their mythic account of the “Day the Muse [almost] died”:

And [they]cried with a great voice to the Eternal their God (Neh. 9:4). What did they cry?...Woe, woe, it is he [the Yetzer ha-Ra] who has destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, killed the righteous, driven all Israel into exile and is still dancing in our midst… You have surely given him to us that we may receive merit through him. We want neither him nor merit through him. In that moment a tablet fell from the firmament, the word ‘truth’ inscribed upon it [Heaven accedes to the request]….They [the Sages of the Great Assembly] ordered a complete fast of three day….whereupon he [the Yetzer] was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion…. At that moment the prophet declared, “This is the Yetzer”…the prophet said, “cast him in a lead barrel” (See Zech. 5:8)….He [the Yetzer] said to them, “Realize that if you kill me, the world is finished.” They held him for three days, then they looked in the whole land of Israel and not an egg could be found. So they asked, “What shall we do now?”…So they put out his eyes and let him go; this helped in that men became less inclined to incest (Yoma 69b).

What a remarkable story. It teaches a most profound truth. We see evil in ourselves, it offends us, and we think the right thing to do is to totally purge ourselves of it. Yet we don’t truly understand it, for things we so easily characterize as “evil” actually spring out of the very nexus of holiness. Surreal as it is, this maaseh makes an incredible point – it is the strife of the spirit, the very struggle between our impulses that makes the world work. Without the Yetzer ha-Ra, the world as we know would cease – people [and animals] would no longer be driven to build, to create, to have children. In short, life as we know, including not only evil aspects but most of what we regard as beautiful also, would cease. Without Desire, Life itself would slowly wither away, and that would be a sad thing. So the goal of the spiritual person is not to destroy the selfish-sexual-evil impulse, but rather to sublimate it to God’s purpose. To be truly what God wants us to be, to achieve our fullest human potential, we need to learn to bend both our impulses to godly ends. We should not cease to lust, but should direct that urge toward love. We should turn our impulse toward vengeance into the desire for justice, our ambition for acquiring possessions into the creation of wealth that will “float every boat,” as GOP rhetoricians like to say.

As Genesis Rabbah teaches:

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good…vehinei tov zeh yetzer hatov, vehinei tov me’od zeh yetzer hara – "good" refers to the Good Inclination but "very good" refers to the Evil Inclination.
Why? Because were it not for the Yetzer ha-Ra no one would build a house, take a wife, give birth, or engage in commerce.

In other words, God is the source of the Yetzer ha-Ra and, despite what we may think, has blessed us though it with a purpose in mind – to fill us with desire; the desire to make the world better than it is.

To learn more, consult Body; Nature; Sex; and Yetzer ha-Ra in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. Purchase it at:


Blogger Anebo said...

The story isn't surreal. Its mythic.

Its an adaptation of theDescent to Ishtarto the underworld. Since sexual desire is one of domains, when she descends to the underworld and foolishly gets herself killed like a mortal (actually in the early version--Descent of Ianna--she's crucified), the other gods notice that northing is growing or breeding on earth. So after three days they devise a plan to get her back and she is resurrected. The rabbis demythologized it a bit, but their story maintains its mythic grandeur, speaking to basic incompatibilities in the human condition.

The main section in question is right before the end of the first tablet, here:


12:55 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear Anebo,

Thanks for your input. While I do use the word 'surreal' to describe the story, a more careful reading will reveal that I specifically call this maaseh 'mythic' in the sentence before the passage.

I appreciate the Ishtar story. A very interesting parallel.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote: “Desire.” It is that aspect of nature, but especially human nature, which drives us to compete, to fight, to possess, but most of all to desire sexual gratification.

If you believe that Yetzer Ra is also the desire for sex than you agree with the Christian that sex is a sin. Torah gives us rules when we can engage in sexual activity and has laid down laws for the women. The idea that there is desire does not automatically mean that its Evil even in a good way as you suggest. Sexual desire is human nature and thus it simply exists. How we channel that desire can be Yetzer Ra and maybe that is how you should have stated it.

If we are able to see that sexuality is given by Hashem than we can not apply evil to it. Like a flower or the water in the ocean, it exists. Something that simply exists is not evil unless we make it so. The argument becomes recursive. One can make the argument that if man makes it evil than we defy Hashem since Hashem does not make it so. Is our nature, created by G_D an evil impulse or do we as men define it as evil?

Also, Extra good by the way is not evil, its just good. Conversely, Hitler must have been good since he was extra evil? There must be a Ying Yang to your logic.

D. Glassman

9:42 AM  
Blogger rina b said...

I feel the yetzer ha'ra is the 'ego'. Why not drop the ego and embrace ha'tov living in the 'now'? Why do we need to get hung up on a sexual side of ha'ra? Do women and snakes have to get blamed for everything still to this day?

4:32 PM  

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