After describing the Yetzer HaRa in terms more understandable in our times, we’re still left to deal with it. How can we overcome emotional obsessions and intellectual conceits? It’s telling that Jewish tradition has no analogue for Christianity’s Lord’s Prayer’s “Lead me not into temptation”. Our wisdom informs us that neither is this possible, nor necessarily desirable for our purpose in life. Rather, we are challenged to engage and overcome our Yetzer HaRa, transform it into Yetzer HaTov, the formation of Good and, as discussed previously, employ the process as a means to more closely approach, התקרוב, hitkarov, and unite, התדבק, hitdabek, with God.
Observing the contemporary trivialization of one of our most profound and subtle concepts, the ספירות, Sephirot, holy spheres/emanations, as well as the related image of the עץ חיים, Etz Chayim, Tree of Life, comprising the seven lower Sephirot, I understand the traditional warnings against learning Kabbalah without proper preparation (mainly a certain level of maturity, life experience and also training in Jewish thought methodology as developed mainly through Talmudic study). All too often these powerful ideas become a facile avoidance of actual responsibility (i.e. Mitzvot) or, through a similarity to Hindu Chakras, a justification for superficial observance of Hindu ritual and practice (not to mention avoidance of actual Jewish practice). The real problem with this popularization and trivialization, however, is that it masks the power of this potentially effective tool in overcoming our Yetzer HaRa.
Very simply stated, these Sephirot describe the flow of energy, both up and down, from our spirituality to our intellect, emotions, physical and finally action. It can help us both analyze and direct our energies to promote constructive behavior and also it provides a model we can use to resist and transform our destructive urges before they become manifest in action.
All of us are motivated to achieve physical comfort and pleasure. Whether it’s the feel of fine cloth, the satisfaction of tasty food or the sensuality of sex, none of us are truly immune. And in many forms, we can enjoy these pleasures in uplifting rather than degrading ways. Our tradition teaches that every physical and emotional desire we experience is really just an echo of our ultimate desire for connection with The One, and we have the ability to recognize this and to dedicate our experience to this deeper and holier desire. Nonetheless, there are boundaries to keep these efforts in the realm of the holy rather than the degrading and it’s not that rare that we feel overwhelmed with desire to exceed these limits.
Returning to the concept of the Sephirot, we notice that, looking at all ten and not just the Tree of Life seven, they are roughly grouped (from bottom to top) in action (מלכות, Malchut, Kingship, the world of action) physicality (נצח, הוד, יסוד, Netzach, Hod, Yesod), emotion (חסד, גבורה, תפארת, Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet), intellect (*(חכמה, בינה,(דעת, Chachma, Bina (Da’at)) and spirit כתר, Keter. This schema gives us at least a start in our struggle to combat/transform our unhealthy desires that is almost so simple as to be overlooked!
When an urge is rooted in the physical, we can appeal to our emotions. Sure, it might feel good in the moment, but how are we going to feel about it “in the morning”? Guilt, when expressing neurosis, is certainly unproductive and unhealthy, but as an expression and even a foreshadowing of conscience, it can indeed be a powerful tool in our refinement and maturation. When our emotional reaction to physical indulgence is inadequate, we can elevate our response to our intellect. We can ask ourselves whether succumbing will bring us closer or farther from our ultimate goals. We can analyze why we’re tempted, what our desire, in it’s purity, really is, and recalibrate our actions towards reaching that goal. And if that’s inadequate, as it often is–we’re not as “smart” as we often think we are–, we can “elevate” to our highest level of function, the spirit. Although we’re not able to consciously perceive anything that goes on in the realm of כתר, Keter, Crown (the imagery of a crown which surrounds but is not part of the head points to this reality), we can (and) do direct our prayers through this interface to The Infinite and we also receive all of our energy, be it spiritual, intellectual and physical through this interface.
Our prayers and literature are full of our cries for salvation. Rather than simplistic hopes to escape external unpleasantness, not that these are trivial needs many times, these calls, often found in Tehillim, the Psalms of King David, a man whose life was filled with challenges at every level, are often prayers to save us from ourselves, from those interior drives that are described as external threats (both the externalize (as a first step to combat) and also to universalize them). The exercise of prayer, as I’ve been taught and repeatedly try to teach, is not “to present a shopping list to God”, but to enter a deep and intimate relationship with Him where we set aside all pretentions of being self-sufficient and self-sustaining, a perverted concept of being independent and “strong”. Seeing ourselves as part of the All, as having strengths but not being omnipotent-in-ourselves, we also put our own Yetzer HaRa into perspective. Our desires, be they physical, emotional or intellectual are neither so urgent, so important nor even so big. It’s not merely a matter of asking for Divine Help in overcoming them, but recognizing the overarching Divine Reality that cuts our individual desires down to size so that we find we already have the resources and strategies to resist and transform them.
It isn’t easy, but we really wouldn’t want it to be. Just as when we physically exercise our bodies, we expect to gradually build our muscles, to increase the weight and repetitions, as it were, until we reach our optimal. It’s a truism in our tradition that the greater the holiness we’re able to reach, the greater the Yetzer opposing it. But, ultimately, we were all created to succeed, to refine ourselves and our world and to bring ourselves, our fellows and our entire world to ever greater דבקות, Devekut, Divine Attachment.
(* דעת, Da’at, Knowledge, is not actually one of the Ten Sephirot, but when כתר, Keter, Crown (as described above) is considered inaccessible, it makes up the count of ten.)