Monday, November 13, 2006

The Evil Inclination

— Ô douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l'obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le coeur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie!
With thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner’s fantastic topical Talmud, and with thanks to Artscroll.

Welcome to the Dark Side.

The idea of a dark side, the evil inclination, whatever it is in humans that allows them to commit evil, to be cruel or wicked or bad or possess vices and desires, is a fascinating one. The mind is drawn to the idea of wickedness, paints it in attractive shades of black and red, fantasizes about the forbidden and its allure.

Judaism has a very interesting view of the evil inclination, one that does not entirely subscribe to the romantic portrait we paint of it. First, the evil inclination is internal, second, it has its balance, the good inclination. What, then, is the evil inclination, and where do we find it?

First we may discuss the names attributed to the Evil Inclination. It has seven names, and they were all attributed by different people. These are the names of the Evil Inclination:

    1. Evil (named so by God)
    2. Uncircumcised (named so by Moses)
    3. Impure (named so by David)
    4. The Enemy (named so by Solomon)
    5. A Stumbling Block (named so by Isaiah)
    6. A Stone (named so by Ezekiel)
    7. The Hidden One (named so by Joel)

All these names are derived from verses regarding the Evil Inclination. The verses, in English, are:

    1. For the inclination of Man’s heart is evil from his youth.
    2. And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart
    3. A pure heart create for me, O God (which implies the impure heart being that with the evil inclination)
    4. If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will be heaping coals on his head, and God will reward you (read the verse: God will pacify him, meaning the evil inclination)
    5. Pave! Pave! Clear a road! Remove the stumbling block from My people’s path.
    6. and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh
    7. And I will distance the hidden one from you

(This is all from Sukkah 52a)

In Kiddushin 30b we see the relationship between the Evil Inclination and the human being demonstrated by the following text:

    The Rabbis taught in a Baraisa:

    [In reference to the Torah, the verse states:] V’samtem, you shall place. [Homiletically, we may divide this word in two and read it as:] Samtam (a perfect elixir.) [The word thus hints to the idea that] Torah is compared to a life-giving elixir. An analogy can be drawn to a man that dealt his son a great blow and then placed a compress upon his wound, saying to him: “My son! So long as this compress remains upon your wound, you may eat what you desire, drink what you desire, and bathe in either hot or cold water and you need not fear that any harm will come to you by these actions. But if you remove this compress, your wound will surely give rise to boils.” So too has the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Israel, “My son! I have created the Evil Inclination, and I have created Torah as its antidote. If you involve yourselves in Torah, you will not be delivered into its hand, as it is stated, “Certainly, if you correct yourself, you will prevail.” But if you do not involve yourselves in Torah, you will be delivered into its hand, as it is stated, but if you do not act well, sin rests at the door. And what is more, all the pursuits of the evil inclination concern you, as it is stated, “And you are its desire.” But if you wish, you can involve yourself in Torah, and thereby master it, as it is stated, “But you can conquer it.”

This parable seems somewhat strange. A man inflicts a wound on his son, and then cures him, but what cause was there to inflict the wound? What is undeniable based on this story, however, is that it is God who both created the wound, or the Evil Inclination, in addition to its antidote, the Torah. They are both his creations, existing by His will.

The Evil Inclination, as we see here, is involved with the human being. “And you are its desire” is the way it is phrased. It is self-destructive in that it longs to kill its human host, as discussed both in Kiddushin 30b and Sukkah 52b.

    R’ Shimon bar Lakish said: A man’s evil inclination threatens every day to overpower him, and seeks to kill him, as it says, “The wicked one watches for the righteous person to slay him.” And if not for the Holy One, Blessed is He, who aids him, he would be unable to withstand it, as it says: God will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him in His judgement.

The Evil Inclination has a fascinating modus operandi. It is clever, seductive, very subtle. As discussed in Sukkah 52b, it builds up its demands. Rava cites three pesukim, or verses, demonstrating the journey the Evil Inclination makes. The Evil Inclination is given three names-
1. Wayfarer
2. Guest
3. Man

These names actually demonstrate the process by which the Evil Inclination makes himself at home in his human host. First a wayfarer given a night’s shelter, he then becomes an invited guest, and finally a man. To quote Artscroll’s footnote, “This reflects the progress of the desire for sin: First it appears in the guise of a wayfarer, who has no particular hold on the person; then as a regular lodger, who makes himself at home; and finally it takes over completely, assuming full control of the person.”

Sukkah 52b also references the statement, “Woe unto those who draw iniquity with cords of nothingness and sin as with a cart rope.” The Evil Inclination entices with thin threads, almost like a spiderweb, thin and fine, but in the end traps us with thick ropes that drag us down.

Shabbos 105b also discusses the wily nature of the Evil Inclination, stating,

    It was taught in a Baraisa: R’ Shimon bar Elazar said in the name of Chilfa Bar Agra who in turn said it in the name of R’ Yochanan ben Nuri: If one tears his garments in his anger, breaks his utensils in his anger, or scatters his money in his anger, he should be in your eyes as one who is performing idolatry. For thus is the craft of the evil inclination, today it tells him, “Do this,” and the next day it tells him, “Do this,” until it tells him, “Perform idolatry,” and he goes and performs it.

Indeed, the Gemara later goes so far as to term the Evil Inclination a “foreign god,” an alternate master, from Psalms 81:10, which states, There shall be no strange god within you, nor shall you bow before an alien god. This foreign god presumably “within you” refers to the Evil Inclination.

There’s a fascinating Gemara in Yoma 69b which details the destruction of the Evil Inclination for idolatry:

    The Gemara continues to expound on this passage: And they cried out in a great voice to God. What did they say to God? Rav said, and some say it was R’ Yochanan who said- they cried out to God concerning the Evil Inclination for idolatry: “Woe! Woe!” It is this inclination that destroyed the Temple, and burned the Sanctuary, and killed all the righteous ones who perished as a result of that destruction, and exiled the Jews from their land, and it still dances among us. Did you give it to us for any reason at all other than for us to receive a reward for overcoming it? We do not want it, nor do we want the reward for overcoming it! A note fell down to them from Heaven, on which was written, “Truth.”

    (The Gemara interjects a comment- Rav Chanina said: Learn from this that the signet of the Holy One, Blessed is He, is “Truth.”)

    They fasted continuously for three days and three nights, and it [the Evil Inclination] was delivered to them to subdue. The likeness of a fiery lion cub emerged from the Holy of Holies. The prophet said to Israel: “This is the Evil Inclination for idolatry,” as it is stated, “And he said: This is the Evil One.” As they seized it, a hair slipped from its mane, and [the fiery cub] raised its voice in a mighty roar whose sound went out and over an area of four hundred parsaos. They said to the prophet: “What shall we do? Perhaps, God forbid, Heaven will have mercy on it.” The prophet replied, “Cast the fiery cub into a lead cauldron and cover the opening with lead, for lead absorbs sound.” As it is stated, And he said: This is the Evil One. And he cast it into the ephah and he cast the lead stone on its mouth.

    The men of the Great Assembly then said: Since it is now a time of Divine favor, let us also pray for the Evil Inclination for immorality to be subdued before us. They prayed and it, too, was delivered into their hands. Whereupon the Evil Inclination for immorality said to them, “See that if you kill me, the world will become desolate,” (Rashi explains- the urge to procreate will disappear) They imprisoned it for three days. During this time, they sought a freshly laid egg throughout Israel, and it was not to be found. They were thus in a quandary and said, “What shall we do? Shall we kill it- the world will become desolate! Shall we pray that half the Inclination be subdued- Heaven does not grant a half!” Therefore, they blinded its eyes and then released it, and this blinding of the eyes accomplished that a man does not become aroused by it to sin with his forbidden relatives.

This entire scenario is fascinating, but what I find most interesting is the form that the Evil Inclination takes- the roaring young cub of fire. For that matter, as mentioned above, the Evil Inclination is also compared to stone. What I find truly intriguing about this is that both these forms are connected to Godliness in the Torah, and as motifs are almost never seen as bad or evil, but rather as good. God, for example, is compared to stone, or a rock, Tzur, in various places (though most of us know about it because of the song we sing on Chanukah, ‘Rock of ages.’) The strong ones of Israel, for example, Yehuda, are compared to lions or lion cubs; this is even given as a blessing.

We might have thought it more logical were the Evil Inclination to appear as one of the creatures that contaminate us and make us impure- a sheretz of some kind, a lizard or mouse. This is, I think, the influence of our contemporary view of Evil- as something that is not only Evil and bad, but something ugly, something twisted and dwarflike, something filled with pus and boils. Many fairy tales, or reinventions of them, make use of ugly twisted crones as their agents of evil.

What I really like about this depiction is that the exterior is not ugly or loathsome, but rather beautiful and grand- a lion made of fire, a lion made of flame. The exterior demonstrates the Evil Inclination’s grand purpose and destiny- it was made by God, and is a proud servant of God, notice that it even emerges from the Holy of Holies! It does not creep out of a small cave, but from the Holiest place that exists! This Evil Inclination is proud, proud of what it is and what it was created to be, grand and beautiful. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, perhaps wonderfully, it is still evil. The exterior does not match the interior, grand and beautiful as the lion appears, it is still the inclination for Idolatry. Beauty and evil may go together, in certain types of fairy tales (much less Disneyfied), they do so all the time- it is the timeless face of beauty that hides the evil, scheming heart.

Now suppose that someone is unable to win over his Evil Inclination. What, then, should he do? The answer is in Kiddushin 40a.

    R’ Abahu said in the name of R’ Chanina: It is better that a person commit a sin secretly and not desecrate the Name of Heaven by sinning publicly, for it is written, And you, the House of Israel, so said the Lord your God: Each man go serve his idols, since you do not listen to Me, but My Holy name do not desecrate.

    R’ Ilai the Elder said: If a person sees that his Evil Inclination is overwhelming him, he should go to a place where they do not recognize him, and clothe himself in black and cover himself in black, and he should do as his heart desires, and he should not desecrate the Name of Heaven openly.

Now, some of you might immediately wonder about this, since I think we have all heard the idea that someone who fears men and what they will say more than they fear God sins in secret, and is punished for it! This is actually the opinion of R’ Yosef, but the Gemara says there is no problem with the 2 variant opinions, because R’ Yosef’s opinion refrs to a man who is ABLE to subdue his Evil Inclination, if he so chose, but instead opted not to and sinned in secret while in our case we refer to a man who is UNABLE to subdue his Evil Inclination.

What I find interesting about this Gemara are two ideas:

1. The dressing in black, as opposed to any other color. (What does this symbolize? Nowadays we think black= mourning…)
2. The fact that the Gemara allows human beings this license- the fact that sometimes we cannot control our Evil Inclination

Now, this idea (that sometimes one is powerless over the Evil Inclination) is also seen in Kiddushin 21b, which states that when the Torah stated that a soldier is permitted to have relations with a captive (Yefat Toar), it is permitted “only in recognition of the man’s Evil Inclination.”

When one is in the grip of the Evil Inclination, one forgets wisdom, or the Good Inclination. This idea is found in Nedarim 32b, where we are presented with the words of Koheles, Ecclesiastes.

The verse from Ecclesiastes, 9:14 states:

“There was a small city, and its inhabitants were few. A mighty king came upon it and surrounded it and he built great siege works over it. And there was to be found in the city a poor wise man, and he saved the city with his cleverness. Yet no one remembered that poor man.”

How do we interpret this?

The small city is the body.
The inhabitants are the limbs of the body.
The mighty king is the Evil Inclination.
The great siege are sins.
The poor wise man is the Good Inclination.
Cleverness is repentance and good deeds.
The forgetting of the wise man relates to the principle that, “when one is in the grip of the Evil Inclination, no one remembers the Good Inclination.”

Therefore, the Evil Inclination comes and assails the body and its limbs with sins. The Good Inclination saves the body through repentance and good deeds, but he is forgotten when the cycle begins again because at the time that the Evil Inclination comes upon us, the Good one is forgotten.

How, then, does one overcome the Evil Inclination, the yetzer ha’ra?

There are the methods a human being can attempt, and then the final slaughter, when God kills him.

What can a human being do? The idea is found in Sukkah 52b.

Draw the Evil Inclination into the study hall. Why would one do this? Because “if he is like a stone, he will dissolve, and if he is like iron, he will shatter.” The following text expounds:

1. If the evil inclination is like stone, the water of the Torah will wear it down and wear away at it (this suggests a long-term course, with the water slowly wearing away at the rock)
2. If the evil inclination is like metal, the fire of Torah will destroy it/ make it shatter (this suggests a short-term course, with the immediate contact with fire shattering the metal)

This leads us to the very famous Gemara regarding the final slaughter of the Evil Inclination by God, in front of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous, the evil inclination will appear as a high mountain, while to the wicked it will appear as a strand of hair. Both parties will weep; the one because they cannot believe they have succeed in conquering it, the other because they cannot believe they failed in overcoming so small a strand of hair!

The last idea, and definitely the one I like best, references Abaye, who follow a man and a woman, thinking he will prevent them from sinning with each other. The man he followed, however, turns away from the woman and they go their separate ways after cordially bidding each other farewell. Abaye was very sad, thinking that were he the man walking with the woman, he would have been unable to restrain himself from sin! He leaned against a door and was very sad, until an old man came along and taught him that, “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his evil inclination is greater as well.”

Therefore, the desire to sin is definitely not unnatural or unusual, but rather expected and seen as normal. To conquer such desire, to overcome such lust, must by necessity be an incredible feat! Even our most righteous felt the desire to sin (there’s another story about a sage who sold baskets because he was poor, and a woman propositioned him, and so he jumped off the roof- as though to commit suicide. Elijah the Prophet saved him, but the intimation is, I believe, that this-jumping off the building- was the only way the sage could have prevented himself from sinning!) We even have a clause in our Gemara that allows for the fact that people may not be able to overcome their desires, and we are told what to do in that case (better to sin in secret and prevent making a mockery of God’s name than to sin in public.)

Our Evil Inclination is extremely original, very different from other evil characters in literature and fantasy. Most evil characters are evil because it is in their own self-interest to poison a girl or change her form, to murder a king or depose of him. There is an end goal besides their evil. But this inclination lies within us, and it is not an enemy in and of itself, but only in our response to it. It has its balance in our Good Inclination, and if we conquer it, or overcome it, or channel it to service our Good Inclination, all shall be well. Our Evil Inclination is perhaps more akin to the Dark Side of the Force rather than anything else…it thrives on passion and anger, and clouds our judgment. But sometimes we can behave as Luke- and outwit it, in exciting and thrilling ways.


Anonymous said...

eXcellent.In fact see Breishis Rabba 9:7,'vehene tov meod -this is yetzer hara'-without it we would not build,nor marry...Or'veahavta es hashem elokecha bechol levavcha'-beshenai yetzorecha.The drive and energy can be channeled (as you stated)for positive growth-or in psychological terms, altruistically.

Anonymous said...

What you have here is amazing. As a matter of fact, I am new here but whatever posts I have seen are very well thought out and follow the line of Torah. But as I explored your blog a little more, I was shocked to find that your links are not to Torah-true blogs such as your own, which take the premise of Torah min HaShamayim (which I assume is the premise here, but please correct me if I am wrong)--but rather those of orthodox Jews who have left the derech. How do you compromise the two?

Anonymous said...

Just to correct my previous statement, SOME of the bloggers listed on your links are those who have gone astray...but the question remains.

Chana said...


You are absolutely right. The reason I link to the blogs of people who do not follow Orthodoxy in its entirety (or not at all), is because I find great value in their posts. DBS writes passionately and beautifully about every aspect of life, and always considers ideas from a thoughtful, logical perspective. I admire his ability to interact with many different types of writers and people, and to treat them so well. I value his opinions because I find they are the result of thoughtful examination, and I too have raised questions that he asks.

Ben Avuyah has an extremely excellent section detailing his memoirs of his yeshiva experience (part one is here) which is beautifully written, and matches up with my experience at my Orthodox Jewish high school. I therefore feel like he is a kindred spirit, to some degree.

Jewish Atheist presents his arguments in a fashion that is compelling, logical, and interesting. I learn quite a lot from his blog, although I do not always agree with him. He is someone who cares about people, and his posts reflect this care. Many of his problems (though not all, as he also has a historical/ intellectual approach) with Orthodox Judaism revolve around his inability to understand rules and laws that can seem so exclusive, such as those dealing with homosexuality.

I learn much from those who are unlike me- in all areas, as Jewish Atheist once quoted, "To understand is not to condone." I believe I can understand and even find value in the words of others even though I do not agree with their choices.

To conclude, my view of those who are no longer religious can be found here. I hope that all this serves to clarify my stance on the matter.

Anonymous said...

I was recently directed to your blog by a friend and am sure glad I found it.
I find your topics really well as the perspectives you share.

I will keep on reading..
Great work!

Anonymous said...

I am also new here- and new to blogs in general (always find myself a couple of steps behind the world:)) Anonymous's question is a good one; mine is somewhat different- how do you know anything about the people whose blogs you read? How do you know if they treat other people well? Because they tell you that they do? Sounds to me like each of the one's you quoted, and I just linked to, have a story that perhaps isn't as nice as you'd like to believe- Perhaps I need to read more to join you on their bandwagons but something doesn't seem right- Seems to me that if you spoke to anyone who actually knew them the picture would be different- just a thought. Good luck with this wonderful writing and all of your devloping skills.

Lela Harbinger said...

stop talking about my yetzer hara that way! it's supposed to help you, you forgot to mention, that its only purpose is gd-send and for our benefit. ttyl, girl.

David L. Singer said...

I "randomly"happened upon your blog tonight and was blown away by this post...

I've been doing alot of thinking lately about the self destructiveness of mankind, what with the world matzav nowadays,not to mention my own yetzer ha ra...

Your on point and write damn well!!!

I'd like to share some of my artwork w/ you and your readers...Trust me you should find it interesting



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Anonymous said...

thanks to your post. terribly gud.

Anonymous said...

One word.. Great! Two words.. Very awesome!