HARNESSING OUR YETZER
Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim
The Temple-Tifereth Israel
Rosh HaShanna 5773
Some seemingly good people can do some outrageously bad things. So much of what we see on television and read in newspapers and magazines, novels and biographies is filled with the revelation of people who presented in one way publicly, but had some not so noble habits privately. These are people from politicians to coaches, from famous people to neighbors; regular men and women, perhaps even ourselves whose indiscretions are sometimes small and sometimes large; some quietly fade into oblivion; some leave scars, occasionally great damage. Some situations become scandals; some even make it to crisis proportion.
Over the summer in the midst of so many damaging headlines about people we often admire, and books being read only on Kindles, I was drawn to a book entitled “Good Self, Bad Self” by Judy Smith. Smith’s expertise as a crisis manager serves as the basis and inspiration for the ABC television series Scandal, a show Marshall and I have enjoyed as good television. The title of the book caught my eye because in Jewish tradition we have the image of the good self–known as the yetzer hatov, and the bad self–known as the yetzer harah. According to the rabbis of our tradition, every person since the creation of the first human being possesses both these inclinations which constantly struggle within us trying to take control of our thoughts and actions. According to the rabbis both these inclinations are necessary.
The rabbinic tradition preserves this story: Our sages once caught the yetzer harah –the bad inclination, and bound it up with gold chains. At first, they were very pleased with themselves. Thievery stopped; murder ceased. People were suddenly friendly and loving toward one another. There was no jealousy; and in all the land no arguments occurred, and moreover, no one died.
Then, slowly, our sages came to a strange realization. People were so satisfied and contented that they did not bother to toil. There was no competition, so people quit striving. No new houses were built. People no longer married or wanted to have children. No babies were born. Even the sages themselves became lazy and put off their study of Torah. In this way, our sages learned how important the evil urge is to the world. They broke the golden chains and set free the yetzer harah (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7).
The sages are right, if we did not have a yetzer harah—the bad self features–a little of the inclination to compare ourselves to others, to want surpass others, we may not have the productive urge necessary to accomplish real goals. However, while the yetzer harah can sometimes contribute to our greatness, it can also get us into trouble.
In her book, Smith identifies seven traits which depending on how we manage them can shift the balance from constructive to destructive outcomes. They are: ego, fear, accommodation, denial, ambition, patience and indulgence. Take for example one’s ego. Managed properly, it yields a necessary level of confidence to feel worthy of one’s success; it inspires us to reach for our best. However, left to run rampant, a person can crave respect and recognition to the point of becoming arrogant, self-centered, or stubborn. A person can even cross over into devious behaviors to feed their ego. In a similar way fear can galvanize or paralyze. Accommodating to get along with others is necessary, but standing by while your neighbor commits a crime—accommodating to injustices against children especially, that’s accommodation gone bad. The quality of ambition can help us to achieve the life we want, but in excess, it can lead us to cut ethical corners. Patience is a virtue until real change is necessary. And to some degree, we all need an element of denial to overcome the odds against success, but denying communication problems can, for example, lead to greater distance. Finally, indulgences can be the excitement of life, but overindulgence means we went too far (p. 11-14).
Although we may not like to admit it, there is a little bit of the yetzer harah in each of us, even by design, and what it motivates us to do is not always so clearly bad or good. As one rabbinic colleague put it: “It is often assumed that our choices are stark: between virtue and vice, between qualities that align with good and those that carry the taint of evil” (Geoffrey Dennis). For the sages and for us, the qualities of good self, bad self are not so black and white, they are quite gray.
What matters then is the balance between the yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha rah. An imbalance of the good self, bad self becomes the root cause of most crises faced by the famous, the infamous and by us. In moments of weakness, we may not have the strength or resolve to overpower our bad impulse. Those moments of weakness can easily become patterns in our lives. The Talmud cautions us “The Yetzer harah (the evil urge) is crafty. At first, it gains a foothold by asking us to do a small thing… Soon it requires us to do something more serious. The Yetzer harah may say to us, “Just do this thing one time—it cannot hurt anyone if you only do it one time.” Then soon it requires us to do evil all the time…At first, says the Talmud, the yetzer harah is like a passerby, later it is like a guest, and finally it becomes the master of the house (Essential Jewish Stories p/269) .
It is easy to see how at first we own our yetzer ha-rah, and then as if the controls are hijacked, it comes to own us. We can see it in just about every venue. For example, recently, I went down to the Horseshoe Casino. I don’t really gamble—except at the Purim Bash—that’s a plug! Rather, I’m what you might call a closet gambler! I gamble that the clothes I buy this year will fit me next year, and I’ve lost a lot of money in my closet. Nonetheless, excited to see the great energy the casino was bringing to the city, I walked around the tables wondering how some of these people made their money and how many of these people’s families knew that this was how they spent it. I’m sure you, like me, have noticed how every advertisement for the Horseshoe Casino also contains a public service announcement for help for those who have let this habit overtake their life. In that one advertisement is the epitome of the struggle between our good self and bad self, our yetzer hatov, and yetzer harah. Out of balance, we adopt habits which can develop into addictions. We loose control of the controls.
The slippery slope can begin as benignly as chocolate in the house. Even if I hide it from myself, I am drawn to it until it’s all gone. I see the results coming, but I cannot seem to stop myself from searching it out. All the more so when other kinds of candy out there beckon to us in a similar way. It’s the yetzer out of control in the case of the executive whose desire for more financial “candy” compels her to hide numbers. We saw it at the Olympics when athletes who had exercised restraint and made sacrifices to get to the highest level, wanting another medal, threw their game so they would be seeded for an easier match; or the players who in the chase toward another victory overlook the guiding regulations of their sport thinking no one will know. It’s the person who has imbibed too much dropping all inhibition, or the person inebriated with their own self, crossing over the line of propriety. The list is endless from drug and gambling addictions to shopping and eating disorders, to all kinds of ways that our yetzer’s secret desires can become a destructive habit of the heart. Whether the yetzer imbalance in evident in our public self, or reserved for our more private selves, most of us know, some of us are, people who have lost their way.
One of the great gifts of this season is the opportunity to consider how to rebalance our yetzer, The tradition in this season reminds us that the key to navigating the yetzer ha tov and yetzer ha rah, our good self and bad self, successfully is to harness our inner lives for the good. A midrash addresses this in the story of a horseman who was trying to figure out how to deal with his wild horses. He had three alternatives: He could let them loose, allowing them to cause unlimited havoc and destruction. He could lock them up in the stable and constantly worry that they might escape. Or he could train them and harness them, which would help him and facilitate his labor. (p235 Text Messages).
We, Jews have this contemplative time as our annual trainer to reign in and to tame the wild horses that sometimes course through us. And our prayer book serves as a kind of instruction book to better manage our yetzer ha-rah. The liturgy instructs us “U’Teshuvah, U’Tefilah, U’Tzedakah maavirin et roah ha-g’zeirah” – which our machzor translates “But repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severity of the decree.” These help to rebalance the purpose of our lives and bring goodness into the world.
We need to engage in repentance when the yetzer ha-rah is out of balance. Not coincidently, our bad habits make it onto the list of the confession of sins familiar to us in this season. The tradition forces us to say–ashamnu–we are guilty..Al chet she-chatanu—for the sin which we have committed. As we recite the litany of ways that a person can sin against God and against another human being, we are reciting a Hebrew acrostic from aleph to tav. A gloss in the new Conservative machzor explains that “the liturgical list is alphabetical, with the hope that it will help us find our own words to name our transgressions.”
By making full confession to God, even if we are not ready to tell another human being, the still, clear voice within us that knows right from wrong, that has been battling within the deepest, darkest recesses of our soul, has the chance to be heard once again. This public recitation allows us to confront our personal issues: to recognize how our ego has grown too large, how our fears have overrun our good counsel, that our accommodating to bad impulses has led us to turn a blind eye, that our ambition has run wild, how our lack of impulse control has led to impatience, and how our indulgences have become addictions.
There is a tradition that as we pronounce each way that we publically or privately let our yetzer get the better of us, that we pound our hearts—as if we are trying to shock our irregular heart’s rhythm back to the way a healthy heart should beat. The recognition that we are out of control, and admitting it to God, are the first steps in harnessing our yetzer ha-rah.
Then we must begin to change the bad habits. I recently read about a person who placed a bag by the bed of a dying person. In it were four slips of paper to help people who came to visit to know what to say in those critical moments. These are the powerful eleven words: Please forgive me, I forgive you, Thank you, I love you. The tradition requires that we do Teshuva–that we repent–the day before we die; and since we never know when that day is for ourselves or for others, then a daily inventory of those eleven words may help us to reconnect with our values, control our yetzer ha rah, and rebalance ourselves toward our good-self decisions.
Our prayers, too, help us to rebalance our yetzer. A colleague of mine who is deaf, Rabbi Rebecca Dubois, taught me how to sign the Shema and often as I say the words of the prayer I think of her interpretive hands. I’d like to share it with you.
Shema==Hear—but since she cannot hear, she uses the symbol for concentrate instead.
Yisrael—the usual symbol for a Jew is to touch one’s chin, like stroking a beard. But she certainly doesn’t and most Jews don’t have a beard anymore! So she uses the symbol of P=people, and of Book==but our book is more like a scroll—thus People of the Book
Adonai—she makes an “A,” and circles with it to indicate God is everywhere, omnipresent, and omniscient.
Eloheynu— Our God–here I think her interpretation is brilliant. She brings her hand down from above, to indicate God is both transcendent and imminent, but then she turns her hand so that it is like a mirror in front of our face. God is far and near—and God is our mirror in which we see our Godlike image—our better self reflected back at us.
Echad—the number 1—the index finger is brought to our heart—ready to begin the V’ahavta prayer—to love God with all our heart!
Prayer allows us to concentrate on how we compare to the standards God would truly want for us. Through prayer, in public and in private; alongside preoccupied people and before an all knowing God, we hold up our complicated traits of ego, fear, accommodation, patience, indulgence, denial, and ambition–to be evaluated and rebalanced.
And similarly, our acts of tzedakah improve our sense of balance. In this season, we are supposed to take a cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of our soul. In the accounting process, we put our expenses on one side of a balance sheet. Included in them would be the money we give for tzedakah. The tradition teaches that even the poor must give charity, for in doing so they realize there are others even worse off than themselves. On the other side of the ledger we would put our receivables. What we receive in return for giving tzedakah is incalculable! It’s a funny thing that as we reach beyond ourselves to show that we care for others, others start to care more deeply about us. It’s not like we are buying caring, but rather our actions demonstrate our participation in lifting up the community, and invites others to lift us up too. Our rebalancing through acts of tzedakah–whether with our treasure, our time, or our talents–is more than about giving assistance, it connects us to others and sets in motion our being able to accept their support when we need it. I’m sure like me, you’ve said to yourself, if I had only known, I could have/we would have helped them to find the resources to avert the severe decree, to curtail the disastrous outcome of a yetzer out of balance.
When we engage in the traditions of Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah, we offer our good self the chance to emerge more strongly. One of the most profound concepts and the essential guiding principle concerning our tradition is summarized in just two words chai bahem—live by them. The Torah commands us: “You shall keep my laws and my ordinances which a person shall do v’chai bahem–and live by them.” The rabbis say “chai bahem, v’ lo she’yamut bahem—that you may live by them, and not die by them.” But the Hebrew chai bahem leaves place for another interpretation. The bet of bahem can also be translated as “through them.” Thus we are commanded to “live through the commandments.” Our lives are enhanced through our adherence to the traditions. They do indeed make a difference in our lives because they change us and change
how we live each and every day of our lives.
And those changes can become good habits. When my daughter Shira was a little girl, we would sing a song about the Shabbat angels peeking through the window—we would hold up our hands and act like the angels themselves. The story behind those Shabbat angels is not such a childish message. The story has us consider that on Friday night as we return to our homes for Shabbat, every person is accompanied by two angels—the good angel, the yetzer ha-tov, and the bad angel, the yetzer ha-rah.
When we arrive at home, if the house has been prepared to greet the Sabbath with candle sticks, wine and challah at the ready, and the family having made its mental preparations of quieting their souls and reconnecting to their values; then the good angel says “May it be like this again next week!” And the bad angel must answer “Amen”—meaning I agree. But if the person returns to the house and no physical provisions or spiritual preparations have been made for Shabbat, then the bad angel proclaims “May it be like this again next week!” And the good angel, with a tear in its eye, must answer “Amen.”
As we prepare the spiritual and physical provisions that create good habits from year to year, week to week, even day to day, we engage our most powerful human attribute of free will. Although we struggle with our good self and bad self, we have the capacity to make the difficult choices that help us to avoid crises of every magnitude. Today we stand before God, the knower of the secrets of our hearts; and our traditions invite us to choose to balance our lives by harnessing in the habits that would break hearts. In this season, with the help of angels both human and Divine, may we make the choices that are a reflection of the kind of person we truly want to be. Then it will truly be a shanna tova, a new year for the good in us and for our world. Amen.