Our ancestors long ago identified a clear, dualistic truth of humanity. We are comprised of the yetzer tov (the impulse for good), and the yetzer ha-ra (the impulse for evil). Over 20 centuries, scholars have discussed and argued over the meaning of this duality.
Some assert that the yetzer ha-ra is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security. The yetzer ha-ra is all about my needs. It is about selfishness and egocentrism. They say that if it is left unlimited, it can lead to evil. But… they also say that without the yetzer ha-ra, no one would build a house or take a job. It is the energy of appetite and acquisition.
The yetzer tov comes from another dimension of the human experience of reality. It reminds us that we are NOT the center of the Universe. The yetzer tov, to borrow from another tradition, is a halo over our heads. It is the force reminding us that we do not live in a vacuum. It directs us to reach out to the other, as opposed to the yetzer ha-ra, that pushes us to reach in. The yetzer tov is all about idealism and altruism.
This, in our tradition, is the eternal tug of war, and we experience it on every level. It is the foundation of Jewish ethics. It’s an honest appraisal of who and what we are made of. It’s all too common not to want to help others, or give tzedakah, or lend a hand to someone who has fallen. It’s I/me me/mine all of the time.
We, humans, can be exceptionally selfish, destructively selfish. We easily disregard, disenfranchise, and dehumanize. The history of the world is filled with the carnage of the yetzer ha-ra. The present darkness engulfing us emanates from that ugliest part of the yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes I can almost smell the rot of it all.
But every now and then, someone reminds us that there’s more to it all than the yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes the purveyors of light arrive. I think of Greta Thunberg, the fantastic 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who is so filled with the yetzer tov. Her courage and indignation are a beacon of light. She is the yetzer tov personified. Her message, which is her life, is so pure and crystal clear. I admire her for her idealism and the zeal she brings to the table, a fearlessness when it comes to delivering an unambiguous yetzer tov message.
And whenever any adult throws his or her maligning yetzer ha-ra negative energy at this sixteen-year-old, it betrays an ancient human toxicity that is always ready to snuff out the light.
The fabulous extremism of Greta Thunberg and her yetzer tov is a valuable corrective. I’m not going to take a trip to Israel in a sailboat. I will fly. My yetzer ha-ra wants to be comfortable and safe. But I will think more clearly about how I do travel. I will no longer sit in my idling car to keep warm as it spews carbon dioxide into the air. I will calculate my carbon offset.
For most of us – ok, for me! – the yetzer ha-ra comes easy. Selfishness is the default human response to the world. The work is locating the force of the yetzer tov and raising it up. Maimonides, when speaking of giving tzedakah, says, and I paraphrase, “You don’t have to be happy giving tzedakah. You don’t have to pretend it’s nice or that you’d rather do nothing else than give money for worthy causes. But your yetzer tov beseeches you, begs you, to do something.”
We are the constant tightrope walkers, the yetzer ha-ra on one side pushing us forward on that perilous course, and the yetzer tov, keeping us deliberate and safe. Sometimes we err toward one or the other. That’s our lives. Looking for balance as we want everything for ourselves while being urged to open up our arms to embrace the other.
Our tradition teaches us that finding balance is our task. As it says in Perkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). Those are our unambiguous marching orders.