As the High Holy Day season and the New Year 5775 are about to begin, it is time for us to engage in the serious process of heshbon ha-nefesh: taking a spiritual accounting of our souls, making amends for our shortcomings of the past year and promising to do better in the year to come.
Even though the New Year hasn’t yet begun, we know that as soon as it does, we will encounter our old friend, our yetzer ha-ra, our inclination toward evil, who is eager and willing to provide us with many opportunities to stray from the path of our resolve to do good in the New Year.
Jewish tradition teaches us that we each have two inclinations, or instincts, within us at all times. We have our yetzer ha-tov, our inclination pulling us toward good, and our yetzer ha-ra, our inclination pulling us toward evil. The two are in constant tension with each other as we make our daily decisions.
Rabbinic literature explains our yetzer ha-ra not as actual evil but rather as a force that powers human energy and is essential to life. This inner potential is capable of leading us toward the force of evil, but when we discipline this instinct and direct it toward good, our yetzer ha-ra adds creativity and constructive energy to our lives.
Another way to more fully grasp the magnitude of our yetzer ha-ra is to understand its root, yatzar. The word yetzer is found in our daily morning blessing, Elohai N’Shama, which begins, “The soul that you have given me, O God, is a pure one. You have created it and ‘yatzar,’ formed it, breathed it into me. …” The Hebrew root, yatzar, means to form, to fashion, to create.
Perhaps rather than having two distinct inclinations, we have one that can go in two different directions. Our yetzer, our inclination, is not good, nor is it evil; it is vital to our living, and it comes from God. We learn from a Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 9:7 that, “were it not for our yetzer (implying our yetzer ha-ra but not stating so explicitly), no one would build a house or have children or engage in commerce.” Our yetzer, our inclination, is our life force; it is necessary. It is up to us to learn how to use it and channel it. Our free will and the choices we make in life determine whether our yetzer will lead us toward good or evil.
In Pirke Avot 4:1, we read, “Who is mighty? The one who subdues his yetzer.” Again, our rabbinic literature teaches us that it is not our job to eliminate our yetzer, simply to control it, to refuse to yield to its temptation and to use it toward our good.
May the year 5775 bring us all health, happiness and increased awareness of the magnitude and positive channeling of our yetzer, both ha-ra and ha-tov.
Rabbi Andrew Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi of Temple Habonim in Barrington and secretary/treasurer of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.