A Necessary Evil: The Yetzer ha-Ra
[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: