What the Yetzer Hara Really Wants

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week 9, Sermon 12: What the Yetzer Hara Really Wants

The yetzer hara, the evil inclination, has seven names, according to R. Avera in Sukkah 52a, who then offers verses that show figures of Tanach who used each of those seven. Aruch HaShulchan explains that we always call it, ra, bad or evil, because that’s the name Hashem gave it.

The prooftext—Bereshit 8;21—has Hashem saying that human beings’ inclination is evil from their birth. Why would Moshe, David, and others find different names for it? As is his way, he moves to another source as the first step in finding the answer, shedding light on the nature of our baser selves, with ideas for how to conquer/improve them.

Yetzer HaRa as Faithful Servant of Hashem

Kiddushin 81a tells a story that will begin us on Aruch HaShulchan’s road to understanding. The Gemara says that Flimo would regularly pray for an arrow to be stuck in the eye of Satan, the angel of the evil inclination. One Erev Yom Kippur, Satan appeared to him and told him how much this prayer distressed him; Flimo asked how he should pray, and Satan said he should pray that Hashem should banish Satan from bothering him.

That’s because, Aruch HaShulchan cites the Zohar to say, Satan only tempts us to sin because Hashem commanded him/it to do so. For reasons R. Epstein does not explain, Hashem wants people to be challenged by the evil inclination, but wants them to beat back that challenge.   So it’s insulting of Flimo to pray as if Satan were an enemy. What he should hope, as Satan does, is that Hashem will release Satan of his duty, leaving Flimo unencumbered by the pull to sin.

On Yom Kippur people act so much better than their usual selves, he says, because Yoma 2a tells us that that’s a day when Hashem in fact tells Satan to stand down. This same idea of Satan as faithful servant led R. Levi, Baba Batra 16a, to assert that even the Satan at the beginning of the book of Iyov had good intentions (to be sure no one thought Iyov more righteous than Avraham).

Making the Evil Inclination Our Friend and Conciliator

This view of the yetzer hara explains Berachot 61b, which says that the righteous are judged by their yetzer tov, their good inclination, the evil by their yetzer ra, and those in the middle by both. Aruch HaShulchan says it shouldn’t be read literally, that in fact we’re always judged by our yetzer ra. But the righteous, who resisted it all their lives, will have turned it into a yetzer tov as well, because it will have the good fortune to report that this person resisted all the God-commanded blandishments. The evil person, who yielded regularly, will be judged for having failed, and the average person, who fell prey sometimes, will have a judge sometimes pleased and sometimes not.

This view explains why Baba Batra 16a says that Satan leads people astray and then goes to Heaven to complain about them. Since Satan’s the one enticing them, why is he complaining that they listened? Because he, like every other angel that serves Hashem, was hoping they wouldn’t listen, was hoping they would stay faithful to Hashem’s Will.

Yoma 38b gives another indication of that view of the yetzer hara, in that Resh Lakish says if someone wants to sin, the road is open, but if they want to purify themselves (or stay pure), they are assisted. That makes sense if the yetzer hara doesn’t actually want to win—it’s its job to tempt us, but it doesn’t then actively help us sin. But those of us wise enough to resist find ourselves then assisted—by the yetzer hara, no less—in staying righteous.

Give It an Inch…

The image of a yetzer hara fulfilling Hashem’s command almost against its will, as it were, is only at the start of a person’s spiritual road. Once that person chooses poorly, the yetzer hara takes root, leading the person from less severe sins to more, from not realizing an action was a sin to committing it despite its being wrong. On the next page in Yoma, the Gemara rereads the word ve-nitmeitem, you will become impurified, as ve-nitamtem, you will become closed up by them (meaning, confused or misled, no longer able to see the truth as well as s/he once did).

The progressive nature of the yetzer hara’s leading us astray led to the names that the various figures in Tanach gave to it. Moshe Rabbenu called it arel, a lack of circumcision, because it closes off our hearts from the truth. At that early stage of giving in to our baser selves (since the Jews had been righteous earlier in Moshe’s life), all that’s needed to get back to religious perfection is to circumcise our hearts (as Moshe urges us to do, Devarim 11;16).

After the passing of Moshe and Yehoshua, the Jews fell into idol worship, which leads David HaMelech to speak of the evil inclination as tamei, impure. Once we’ve given in, the yetzer hara complains to Hashem about us, and mocks us for our weakness, the reason Shlomo HaMelech referred to it as sonei, our enemy. In that same verse, Mishlei 25;21-22, Shlomo also gives us advice for how to conquer this stage of the yetzer hara; the metaphor is feeding our enemy bread and water, which Aruch HaShulchan takes as studying Torah.

The Problem of Wealth

His insight into the workings of the yetzer hara supports his reading of an idea we find in a few places, that Hashem has compassion on Jewish money. In its simplest sense, it’s Hashem’s concern for Jewish money that explains why certain rituals were done with less expensive materials, such as using wood for the lots on Yom Kippur that decided which goat was to be thrown off a mountain, and why the Kohen Gadol did not wear gold when he entered the Holy of Holies during the Yom Kippur service.

Aruch HaShulchan instead says the Kohen Gadol’s garments could not include gold because of the prayer he would say upon exiting the Holy of Holies, which included a request for the Jewish people’s livelihood (note the return of the theme). Conspicuously, he did not pray for them to be wealthy because, Aruch HaShulchan says, that leads many to abandon a Torah lifestyle.

Were the Kohen Gadol to be wearing his golden garments, it would remind the Heavenly Court of the sin of the Golden Calf, which tradition attributed partially to the Jews’ having left Egypt with more gold than they knew how to handle. A reminder of that on Yom Kippur might lead the Heavenly Court, God forbid, to decide that the Jews had to be kept poor, not just not rich, to protect them from the traps and temptations of wealth. That’s how Hashem has compassion on Jewish money—by wearing simple garments, the prayer of the Kohen Gadol will not run the risk of bringing up the past in a way that might cause Divine judgment to decide the Jewish people need to stay poor.

Public Education as the Way to Prepare for Wealth

His reading explains Yoma 36a, which tells us that Ben Gamla changed the lots used to pick the goat for Azazel of gold, and was always mentioned with praise. It’s odd, Aruch HaShulchan says, that the Jews couldn’t afford two small pieces of gold until Ben Gamla’s time.

He argues that it wasn’t a matter of affordability. Prior to Ben Gamla, gold lots carried the same danger as golden clothing for the Kohen Gadol, reminding Hashem of how the Jewish people tend to go astray when wealthy. Ben Gamla could change those lots because he was the one who had mandated universal public education. Once he had armed the people with the protection of Torah knowledge, gold was no longer as threatening.

Torah Study as the Reaction to Destruction

That’s why, in the aftermath of the destruction of the first Temple, the effort to spread Torah knowledge became even more prominent, with Avot giving us the list of leaders who tried to ensure that the people as a whole would know Torah, and therefore be worthy and capable of receiving Hashem’s bounty.

For a long time, that worked, Jews involved in Torah study [I’m not sure how historically accurate that is; long before his time, there were unlearned Jewish communities]. But starting over a hundred years ago [he means the advent of the Haskalah in the late 18th century, with its push to secularism], the yetzer hara no longer entices Jews to sin, it entices Jews to abandon Torah, only a small minority caring about study and observance, as predicted in Yeshayahu 66.

The Yetzer HaRa Described by Yoel

In all these situations, the key to success is holding fast to Torah, hard as it may be. That’s why the prophet Yoel describes a famine as eventually leading to a renewal of recognition of Hashem (in the verse, Hashem says He will pour His spirit down on all flesh); for Aruch HaShulchan, that’s not only the famine of Yoel’s time, it’s also a prophecy about the time before Mashiach, when changes in the world will lead to famine.

Which is true of his time, he says, when the revolution in the world economy, (driven by the advent of railroads) was impoverishing many Jews [a hundred-plus years later, we’re again undergoing an economic revolution, although this one hasn’t impoverished swaths of Jews, thank Gd; but if Aruch HaShulchan is right that an almost complete overhaul of the economic system comes just before Mashiach, maybe there are more of those than we sometimes notice].

Jews are supposed to experience these situations as proof of Hashem’s involvement in the world, rather than using their need to earn a living as an excuse to abandon Torah study. If they do it right, the good parts of the prophecy of Yoel will come to fruition, where Hashem promises all the material wealth for which one could hope.

Once again, he is striving to convince his audience that the solution to their problems lies in the exact opposite strategy to the one many of them have adopted—more Torah study, not less; conquering the evil inclination, as it itself wants them to do, not giving in to it.

Because the road to what we want is not always intuitive.

About Gidon Rothstein

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