June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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It didn’t take long! Cradled in an exquisite garden and mandated with just one command, Man wasted no time in disobeying the Divine will. Guilty, he and his wife were swiftly dismissed from the comforts of Eden. Subsequently, their jealous firstborn son brutally slayed his own kin, disgracing the earth with murdered blood. Witnessing this moral degeneration and acknowledging that Man’s nature or his “yetzer” was inherently evil, Hashem determined that a global flood was necessary to reboot the world’s population. After the devastating flood, Hashem once again acknowledged Man’s sinful nature, promising to never again obliterate His world.

Emphasizing Man’s innate capacity for sin, the Torah attributes the source of sin to his “yetzer hara.” This yetzer hara is described as “evil from the earliest phase of life”—ra mi’neurav. Since the term “yetzer” does not easily translate in English, the identity of this yetzer hara remains ambiguous. One thing though is clear: the yetzer hara, as the source of human wickedness, can be perceived in manifold ways. For example, the Gemara (Sukkah 52a) lists seven different names or metaphors for the yetzer hara: some deemed it “an enemy” while others portrayed it as an “impure agent.” Some likened it to a “heavy stone” while some imagined it as “hidden and ominous force.” Each metaphor reflects a different perspective, both upon the essence of the yetzer hara as well as upon the source for sin. As our sense of human identity is dynamic, it is logical that the metaphors describing the yetzer hara should also vary. It is imperative to update our metaphors and descriptions of the yetzer hara, to bring them in line with contemporary views of human identity. To better understand the pathology of sin and avoid sin, our perception of the yetzer hara must be consistent with our overall inner experience.

Classically, the yetzer hara was defined as an “evil force” within human conscience. Man’s decisions and behavior are influenced by two inner “forces” or two “drives”—one motivating him to virtue and obedience and one pressing him toward sin. Though these two forces are external to our core identity, they are so deeply embedded within human consciousness that they feel innate. Human beings, endowed with free will, must choose which force to follow or which “voice” to listen to.

This evil force is both relentless and cunning. Reish Lakish, an Amora who himself was a repentant sinner, remarked “the yetzer hara battles us daily, seeking our religious demise and our eternal death.” Facing this irrepressible adversary, Man lives in a constant state of struggle against an indomitable foe. As the famous line in Pirkei Avot announces: “Who is strong? He who conquers his yetzer.” To summarize: Man lives under siege from a powerful and antagonistic force, constantly misleading him into sin. Neverending vigilance is necessary to keep this hostile enemy at bay and to defeat its ruthless and unrelenting efforts.

In the modern era, our self-perception of human identity has undergone drastic changes. The era of democracy and the proliferation of personal freedom prioritized the sanctity of each individual, over the authority of the collective. Man began to view himself as an individual rather than a small part of some greater whole. Man began to deconstruct his own inner identity in revolutionary new ways. This exploration of individual human identity led to the emergence of the field of psychology. This study of psychology—generally credited as having begun in the late 19th century—transformed our self-image, as well as our understanding of human identity. Our modern view of identity is radically different from the classical sense. Given these dramatic shifts, it is vital to modernize the imagery and the terminology associated with the yetzer hara.

Perhaps in the past, the religious drama was viewed as a struggle between two inner voices. For many, this mapping of “two voices” is inconsistent with our current view of human identity. Many people do not go through their lives vacillating between two inner voices.

Not only is the classic image of yetzer hara as a hostile enemy inconsistent with our contemporary views of identity, but it also may be psychologically harmful. This view implies a constant state of warfare between two opposing voices, or at the least between Man and a belligerent inner enemy. A constant battle mentality may induce extreme stress and generate unhealthy mental and emotional turmoil. Constantly living under siege may not be the best recipe for general emotional well-being. Even those who succeed in this battle may find their energies sapped and their victories sporadic.

Additionally, this classic view of the yetzer hara may cause unhealthy suppression of character. By conquering and defeating this evil foe, what parts of human identity are also compromised or suppressed? As we strive to erase the influence of this inner enemy, what other parts of our identity may also be inadvertently scrubbed and what potential may be squandered in the process?

As classical views of identity have been replaced by modernized versions, the imagery of the yetzer hara must also be reformulated. Otherwise, we may find ourselves living an outdated narrative and terribly unequipped to legitimately sculpt a better religious personality.

Rabbi Soloveichik’s ‘Layers’

Speaking in the modern context, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik produced a fascinating mapping of our religious psyche. What is striking is the almost complete absence of the classic yetzer hara as an inimical or adversarial force. In his essay on prayer, Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that human identity can be deconstructed into three different states of being or layers of identity. Our cognitive identity enables reason and empowers rational analysis. Through this identity, we analyze the Divine word and we probe our surrounding world—each of which leads to knowledge and understanding of Hashem. A second state of human identity is the “ethical will”—the inclination of man to bend his desires and decisions toward moral law and ethical behavior. Through our ethical will, we identify Hashem as the absolute moral being and we feel compelled to sculpt our being in the likeness of Hashem. Both the “cognitive identity” and the “ethical will” are easily and naturally compatible with religious experience.

A third layer of identity, the aesthetic type, employs sensual experience to perceive beauty and art. The aesthetic type is naturally drawn to physical delight and sensuousness. If it dominates human experience, Man hedonistically degenerates into sin. Ideally, though, this third layer of identity can also be channeled toward religious experience. Aesthetic sensitivity allows us to marvel at the grandeur and majesty of Hashem and His world. Admiring this magnificence and splendor bridges us to infinity and to a recognition of exaltedness. Recognizing exaltedness in our world is a lofty and sublime encounter with the transcendence of Hashem. Man is composed of these three layers and religious success is a product of our cognitive and ethical will steering our aesthetic self toward sublimity.

In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s system, each of these three identities are endowed by Hashem and each possesses religious energy and potential. It is striking that the classic yetzer hara as a malignant force bent upon seduction of Man is completely absent from this mapping. Rabbi Soloveichik provided a modern gloss or map toward understanding human identity and religious struggle.

A Toolbox

A different and perhaps less philosophical narrative likens human identity to a toolbox. Hashem created Man with an enormous range of traits, talents and desires. Each and every trait within a human being has a purpose and a utility; each trait is a tool. Religious success rests in properly balancing and calibrating our diverse traits and our innumerable qualities. Successful calibration depends upon context: when should a trait be expressed and when suppressed. However, timing isn’t everything. The expression of a trait must also be finely tuned: Even when a trait is expressed or employed, it should be regulated—and often combined with—other (sometimes contrary) traits. Not all traits are created equal: Some traits are more mild while others are more combustible. The more explosive traits unleash great achievement, but must be handled with greater care and caution. Human identity is a toolbox and we are expected to familiarize ourselves with each tool and apply them judiciously.
Sin results from the failure to properly employ the tools or balance this assortment of traits. Each tool has function and value, and as we learn more about ourselves and about life, we are better able to control and maximize the toolbox.

Our sense of human identity is under constant flux. For some, the view of a yetzer hara as a “wicked voice” accurately reflects their self-image and their religious experience. For many others, whose identity is shaped by modern psychological conventions, an updated narrative of the yetzer hara is absolutely vital to assist us in avoiding sin and in utilizing the enormous potential which Hashem vested in us.

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