Yetzer Tov and Yetzer HaRa: Working Together

December 2nd: Toldot

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of Rabbinical Judaism’s most interesting teachings regards the reason why humans sin. We each have, the Rabbis teach us, two inclinations: Yetzer Tov, the Good Inclination, and Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Inclination. Something inside us wants to do good, but something else is often/always urging us to be selfish or disrespectful or rude, etc. It is like those old cartoons with a little angel whispering in one ear and a little devil whispering in the other. Throughout our lives, we are poised between these two urges and trying to make good choices.

As presented, one would think that the Yetzer Tov is good and Yetzer HaRa is evil, but one Midrash leads us to a different understanding.  In Yoma 69b, we find the curious story about a time when someone managed to catch the universal Yetzer HaRa and lock it up—like in Pandora’s Box. The Sages thought that this would solve every problem in the world, but this turned out not to be the case. Without the inclination to acquire and assert and win and procreate, the world basically ground to a halt. No one would get out of bed in the morning. No one attended to chores or work. Even the animals were lackadaisical: roosters were not going after chickens; bulls were not pursuing cows; neither eggs nor milk were being produced. The things that the world needs were simply not being done, so the Sages had to let the Evil Inclination out.

The suggestion of this Midrash is that the terms Good and Evil are not the best ways to describe our two basic urges. Perhaps Yetzer Tov is better described as the altruistic inclination—that part of us that wants to give and help. And, perhaps Yetzer HaRa is better described as the assertive or self-protective inclination—that part of us which we need to make sure we take care of ourselves. Self-care is not evil. We need to put ourselves at the top of our priorities. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” The problems come when we get carried away with self-care and share our energy and resources and prerogatives with no one else. “But, if I am only for myself, what am I?” Both self-assertion and altruism are necessary; our challenge is to learn to live in balance.

This lesson can be seen in this week’s Torah portion and in a particular interpretation of the saga of Jacob and Esau. The p’shat /literal meaning of the Torah is that Rebekah gives birth to twins. This is after twenty years of trying and a difficult pregnancy. She and Isaac are overjoyed, but the boys are at odds with each other even before birth. “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.’ When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25.21-26)  There is a lot to be learned from this story in re family relationships, sibling rivalry, and overcoming conflict.

However, another, more psychological interpretation suggests that the “twins” are really one person—one person with two divergent inclinations. One side of Esau/Jacob is a wild man who revels in his strength and exuberance and has little control over his emotions. The other side of Esau/Jacob is quiet and studious and always looking for a subtle way to achieve victory.

Each aspect of this “child’s” personality tries its approach to the world but with incomplete, unsatisfying results. It is not until they wrestle (in Parshat Vayishlach) that the personalities learn to work with each other, and the result is the Patriarch Israel, the one who is smart and pious and strong and assertive enough to wrestle with an angel and prevail.

The message of this psychological approach is for us recognize the value of our wild and dominant side but also to realize that its strength and vigor should be used responsibly. It should also remind us that our soft and giving side is wonderful, but sometimes we need to call upon our inner Esau to get things done.

May we learn to embrace all that God has given us—and learn to live in holy balance.