The Sages spent a great deal of energy trying to figure out exactly what it means to be a human being. Sorting out this question was not an easy one because the biblical tradition does not give a singular definitive answer to this question; rather its messages are seemingly fraught with contradictions. One-minute, human beings are described as being the pinnacle of creation – created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elokim); and the very next, after the failure to heed God’s command not to eat of the “etz hadat – the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, God notes – “And the Lord God said: ‘Behold, the man has become one of us, to know good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:22), implying that human beings were now tainted with the knowledge of and the ability to do evil. All through the opening chapters of Genesis, people, the opus of God’s creation, get themselves tangled up in all sorts of shenanigans, making one wonder in what way, they are created in “God’s image”.
The Sages predominant answer to this question was that God created human beings with two potential inclinations, the yetzer hatov (the inclination to do good) and the yetzer hara (the inclination to do evil). It was a matter of human choice to determine which path to follow. (Just as a note, it was the view of the sages that both elements were necessary for human beings to manage in the world but that both inclinations need to be directed to serve God.)
In the following midrash from the Tanhuma, a relatively “late” midrash (7th-8th century, Eretz Yisrael), this approach is taken up with a special distinction. It totally removes the creation of the evil inclination from God’s hands and places responsibility for the creation and control over the evil inclination squarely in human hands:
And the Lord said: Behold, man has become one of us (Genesis 3:22). Scripture alludes to this verse elsewhere: Behold, this only have I found, that God made man upright (Ecclesiastes 7:29); that is, the Holy One, blessed be He, who is called righteous and upright, created man in His own image so that he might be upright and righteous like Him. However, if you should ask: Why did He create the evil inclination, concerning which it is written: The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21)?, you say thereby: Since man is evil, who can make him good? The Holy One, blessed be He, contends: You make him evil! Why is it that a child of five, six, seven, eight, or nine years of age does not sin, but only after he reaches the age of ten and upward does the evil inclination begin to develop in him?
Furthermore, if you should insist that no man is able to guard himself from the evil inclination, the Holy One, blessed be He, replies: That is not so. You caused yourself to become evil. When you were a child, you did not sin, but when you grew up, you did sin. There are many things in this world that are harsher and more bitter than the evil inclination, yet you know how to alter them. For instance, there is nothing more bitter than lupine (a kind of bean), yet when you boil it in water seven times it becomes sweet and edible. Similarly, you sweeten mustard and capers and numerous other things. If you are able to sweeten the bitter things that I have created to satisfy your needs, how much more so are you able to control the evil inclination within you. (Tanhuma Bereishit 7)
This midrash emphasizes that human beings have no “original” taint because God did not implant in them the capacity for evil. What it does do is put responsibility in human hands with the proviso that human beings really do have the ability to take hold of themselves and live right. In fact, one might say that this idea is a major Jewish contribution to religious thinking. Service to God means to try to live responsibly and to take control of who we are and what we do. A world structured on that way of thinking would be a better world – the kind of world God truly desires.