Is Yetzer HaRa A Myth?

I remember my grandparents and others their generation talking about the “yaytzerhora” as some sort of demon (or maybe a variation of Israeli folk-dancing?)–I didn’t yet know what those words (in fact, it was a few years until I learned that it was really two words) but I knew “it” meant me no good.  As I got older and began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with what seemed to be outmoded superstition in my Jewish tradition, the Yetzer HaRa topped the list.  As I became even older and rediscovered my heritage, as I’ve found ever-deeper profundity in our wisdom, the Yetzer HaRa has remained among the most challenging concepts for me to understand.  There’s something that just seems childish and foolish in literal belief in a trickster being whose sole reason to exist is to ploy my individual downfall.  Maybe I was just not getting it.

I realize that it’s very difficult, some times almost impossible, for us, grounded in our sophisticated 21st century, to understand even a little the poetry and allegories of our ancients.  Without a lot of “translation/creative-interpretation”, what are we to make of the creation of the universe taking exactly six, 24-hour days?  The Zohar, one of the foundations of our mystical tradition, is closed to us but for the brilliant update of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, kabbalist of Tzfat in the 16th century), just as his teaching is incomprehensible to us without the update of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, the Ramchal, in the 18th century.  When our sages teach that Torah is given in the “language of man”, we need to understand that just as man’s frames of reference change through history, yesterday’s explanations, spoken in yesterday’s language, needs to be restated, translated, as it were, into today’s language.  (This does not imply that the ethical/spiritual/cosmological message of the Torah changes, just that our relationship to it depends upon, among other things, our historical/social context).

Recently studying Netzach Yisrael, a deep philosophical work by the Maharal of Prague (perhaps best known as the creator of the Golem, the “man of clay”, an artificial being, temporarily animated by mystical means, in order to save the Jewish community from extreme oppression and danger), I struggled to understand the distinction he was making between יצר, Yetzer (meaning Yetzer HaRa, our drive to evil) and  שכל, Sechel, which means our intellect/spirituality.  It dawned on me that what we mean by the Yetzer is those actions we take which defy logic.

These days it goes under more contemporary names such as “human perversity”, “self-destructiveness” and “just damned cussedness”.  We all face moments when we can’t resist something we know is terrible for us.  People can’t “eat just one” death-loaded potato chip (salt, fat and empty carbs all in one bite!).  People sabotage their relationships all the time, provoke their bosses and otherwise conspire for their own failure.  With all my awareness of my own health issues, I still can’t resist a coffee candy (or a chance to make a clever, but often harmful, remark)!

If it were a matter of brains, we’d never do these sort of things.  And even when our intellect does lead us to better decisions, it always seems like the old temptation keeps popping up.  With all the easily accessible and widely publicized knowledge about the dangers of cigarettes, an entire generation of young people have started to light up, decades after their parents quit the habit.  Is there any other explanation for this kind of behavior?

Everyone knows that it’s absolutely necessary to acquire a good education in order to successfully function in the future, but  between American schools that automatically pass every kid in order to make sure no one ever feels bad and “progressive” classes that emphasize group projects over the skills the classes are delegated to teach, between some religious schools, be they certain yeshivot as well as certain fundamentalist schools of other faiths as well which refuse to teach modern secular subjects such as math and science (actually, I can’t think of subjects more potentially spiritual than math or science), all too often people are able to come up with a good-sounding rationalization for self-destructive decisions.

American cities elect to spend public fortunes for sports palaces while the city streets suffer epidemics of pot-holes.  Benches are removed from bus shelters as ways to not really address homelessness, all the while penalizing the disabled, and there is always a “good explanation” for why, against all logic and intelligence, these stupid, not to mention destructive, decisions are made.

Our tradition describes this Yetzer HaRa as quasi-human in intelligence and craftiness, flexibility and ability to improvise.  It does seem superstitious and childish until you start to examine all the ways common sense and “our better judgement” are ignored.

בחירה, Bechira, Free Choice is among our greatest gifts as well as our greatest challenges.  We’re given an opportunity to resemble The Creator as much as humanly possible, and one important aspect of this is the ability to resemble His independence.  It’s no big thing to make “the right choice” if it’s the only choice, and a make-believe choice is really no choice at all.  The more compelling the reasons for a good decision, the less free that decision becomes, and thus of less value to us in our goal of growth, development, refinement and maturity.  Thus, the more our “head” tells us something is right, the more strongly our Yetzer, in the guise of  physical temptation (potato chips, coffee candies, destructive relationships), well-meaning weakness (using schools for social condition rather than education, passive-aggressive rather than effective strategies to deal with bad social behavior, rationalization of “moral relativity”) will demand the opposite.

Chassidic and Kabbalistic tradition teaches us that eventually our Yetzer HaRa will transform into our Yetzer HaTov, our drive to do good.  Our path to this is through resisting all the physical, emotional and intellectual rationalizations for acting against our intelligence.  The decision itself to choose good in spite of the attractions of the ultimately-destructive lifts our good decision much higher than can rise on its own.  It makes our free choice truly free since we weren’t merely following a series of “no-brainer” obvious steps, but rather making conscious positive decisions at each step.

We might not be able to explain these phenomenon in any empirical terms at all.  Our universal “sheer cussedness” isn’t traceable to brain chemistry, nutrition, exercise or diet.  Nonetheless, we do have the tools, mainly awareness, strength and hard work, to overcome them.  And in doing so, we accomplish much more than merely preventing one more stupid decision–we lift up both our individual and our collective Neshamot (souls).

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