Allen S. Maller
Allen S. Maller

Judaism’s two sources of Good and Evil

Why is there evil in the world? Why are some people filled with hate, prejudice and violence? Human beings have been asking these questions for millennia. Yet people often fail to ask other equally important questions. Why is there good in the world? Why are some people filled with love, a sense of justice, and a desire for peace?

Good is not simply the absence of evil. The sources of goodness itself also need to be understood and explained. The real question is: Why is human nature both good and evil?

The rabbinic sages taught that within each and every human personality there are two sets of inclinations. One set is the Yetzer HaTov, the inclination towards goodness.· This set includes the personality traits of empathy and sympathy, loyalty and cooperativeness, the need to be appreciated and loved, patience, kindness, etc.. You can already observe most of these character traits in very small children, but they need to be developed further through education, especially spiritual and moral education.

The other set, the Yetzer HaRah, might be called the ego/selfish undisciplined set. Ambition, assertiveness, competitiveness, curiosity, determination and forcefulness are a few of the character traits associated with this set. These aspects of ego personality are not intrinsically evil, but if they are not held in check they can easily expand to yield evil results.

Ambition can lead to arrogance and selfishness. Assertiveness can lead to insensitivity and aggression. Competitiveness can lead to jealousy, rivalry and hate. Curiosity can lead to prying and gossip. Determination can lead to stubbornness and rigidity. Forcefulness can lead to domination and manipulation. The ego/self undisciplined set of inclinations are called by the rabbis the Yetzer HaRah – the inclination towards evil because this set of character traits so easily expands to produce evil.

The most obvious example is sexual desire which can lead to love, marriage and family or to seduction, adultery or even rape and incest. The rabbis realized that the Yetzer HaRah the inclination towards evil was necessary and vital to many of life’s most important and basic activities.

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman stated that were it not for the impulse to evil, a man would not build a house, take a wife, beget children, or engage in commerce. All such activities come, as Solomon noted, from a man’s rivalry with his neighbor. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

If as Rabbi Samuel Bar Nahman said, the Yetzer HaRah is a necessary part of human life, does that mean society cannot make any progress towards our goal of establishing a just and peaceful world?

Although human nature doesn’t change much, we can, through our religious teachings, improve the effectiveness of our society’s institutions and our own self discipline, thus strengthening the Yetzer HaTov in its control over the Yetzer HaRah. For example, many, perhaps most, of the world’s pagan religions included human sacrifice as part of their ritual. The Aztecs were practicing human sacrifice as recently as five centuries ago.

Jewish opposition to idolatry and human sacrifice started with Abraham over thirty five centuries ago and for more than a thousand years the Jewish people themselves struggled to overcome their own tendency to do what their neighbors were doing. Although the Torah prohibits human sacrifice and idol worship, and castigates the Canaanites who practiced it, it was not until after the Babylonian exile that the Jewish people finally overcame the Yetzer HaRah, the inclination towards paganism and idolatry.

It took another twenty centuries until the Jewish influence, spread through Christianity and Islam, eliminated human sacrifice worldwide. Today no religion would advocate or practice human sacrifice . Thus progress does occur. We may still have a long way to go, but we have also come a long way from the days of slavery, idolatry and human sacrifice.

The rabbinic sages realized this and tell a startling story to illustrate both what has already been achieved and why total suppression of the Yetzer HaRah is an illusion.

The Talmud relates that after the Babylonian exile when the Jewish people had finally fully conquered their inclination for idolatry they tried to totally eliminate lust from the world: ‘A prophet warned them – consider carefully if you slay it the world will be destroyed. So they imprisoned it for three days . But then they found that not a single egg had been laid throughout the Land of Israel, so they said, if we slay the impulse to evil the entire world will be destroyed, and they let it go .

Some non-Jewish religious leaders have sought to overcome temptation by advocating the total suppression of various Yetzer HaRah inclinations through celibacy, a ban on alcohol, other forms of abstinence – asceticism, or the elimination of desire in general, but the rabbis opposed this approach. Although one rarely does, one can exaggerate to an extreme, the Yetzer HaTov, the impulse to do good.

The Talmud relates a satirical story about a man who through asceticism and an extreme sense of guilt, literally killed himself: Hiyya bar Ashi always prayed -God save me from the impulse to evil. One day, when his wife heard him praying thus, she said to herself – for many years he has been aloof from me, what need has he to pray in this manner? So one day, while he was studying in his garden, she disguised herself and kept walking past him, finally sitting down before him.

They started to talk and he propositioned her. She said: bring me that pomegranate at the top of the tree ! He climbed up and brought it to her. When he returned to his home his wife was firing up the oven. He went and sat in it.

What does this mean? she asked. He told her what had happened. It was I, she assured him. He paid no heed to her until she produced the pomegranate . Nevertheless, he said, my intention was to commit a forbidden act. All the rest of his days that man fasted until he died from his fasts. The rabbinic sages viewed most austerities and the denial of normal human desires as being excessive and extreme.

Only that which the community as a whole accepted was considered necessary. There always are people who by their personalities tend to extreme piety and self denial. It is hard to denounce such people, especially if they do not try to impose their own extreme standards on others, nevertheless as the story about Hiyya Bar Ashi indicates their extremism needs to be ridiculed.

On the other hand, the example of people who do successfully overcome the Yetzer HaRah helps other people to do the same. This is why teachers, leaders, and heroes are so important. Sometimes a very good and dramatic example can turn a person completely around.

The Talmud relates a story of a man who heard of a prostitute in a foreign country who was so desirable that she charged 400 gold pieces for her services. He travelled across the sea and arranged to see her. After he paid her fee he approached her kingsized bed and suddenly realized that what he was doing was wrong. His Yetzer HaTov overcame his Yetzer HaRah so he stopped and told her he could not go through with it.

She demanded to know why. He replied that he had never seen a woman as beautiful as her, but that the teachings of the Torah prevented him from doing this. Her curiosity was aroused because no one had ever been able to resist her before. She inquired about the Jewish religion and who his teachers had been. After he left she sold all of her possessions; giving one third to the tax collector, one third to the poor, and keeping only a third for herself.

She then came to the Land of Israel and sought out the mani’s teacher, Rabbi Hiyya, saying to him, “Teach me Torah and make me a Jew”. Rabbi Hiyya responded, “Have you fallen in love with one of my disciples?” She told him the story and he said, “You are worthy of the husband you are about to acquire.”

We should not be surprised that great sages and rabbis had to struggle to control their Yetzer HaRah. Sometimes it seems that the greater the man the greater his need for self control. The Talmud relates how a sage named Abbaye learned this lesson: Abbaye overheard a man say to a woman, ‘Let us get up early and go on our way. ‘Abbaye thought ‘I will follow them to keep them from doing what is prohibited.

‘He followed them through the meadows for three miles. Then they separated and said farewell. Abbaye thought,’If I were in their place, I could not have restrained myself. ‘In deep anguish he felt faint. An old man came by and told him, ‘The greater the man, the greater his impulse to evil.‘

Indeed, one of the most popular statements of the sages is, “Who is a hero? The one who can conquer his Yetzer.” Since some people have much stronger ego urges than others, they deserve appropriate credit when they master themselves. However, no one completely succeeds in self discipline, especially those who have a strong Yetzer. Sometimes the urge to act out in some way becomes overwhelming.

Even if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it isn’t ok to do this and when it does occur it is a defeat. However, you can’t expect to win every struggle. By viewing it as a defeat rather than rationalizing it as ok the rabbis sought to preserve the ideal pattern for each individual and for the community as a whole.

Therefore, since no one is perfect and you can’t always control yourself, you should at least try to be discreet and not set a bad example for others. Evil therefore arises from natural and necessary human personality traits that cannot and should not be eliminated but that can and are easily aroused and expand to an extreme. How can these traits be controlled?

The method the rabbis advocated to control the Yetzer HaRah was the refinement and strengthening of the second set of human character traits which are called the Yetzer HaTov the inclination towards goodness. These traits lead to cooperative social behavior and include among others empathy, kindness, loyalty, humility and the need to be loved and appreciated. Even if they are pushed to extremes they rarely lead to evil, although they can lead to a degree of self sacrifice which is sometimes unwise and non-productive.

Thus empathy can lead to forgiveness and patience; kindness can lead to charity and mercy; loyalty can lead to reliability and trust; humility can lead to respect, reverence and awe; and the need to be loved and appreciated can lead to being helpful and doing good deeds.

Often our desire to do good conflicts with our self interest. An honest salesman will lose some customers. A truthful lawyer will lose some cases.

Whenever our values cause us to put the interests of others above our own personal interests (either material or spiritual), then the Yetzer HaTov has truly conquered the Yetzer HaRah. Since we think everyone should internalize the ethical and social values of the community we focus on those who do not fully do so and seek to explain why they are mean, nasty or violent.

The rabbinic sages by emphasizing both the Yetzer HaTov and the Yetzer HaRah enable us to see humanity in a more balanced fashion and to understand that we need to instill the good as much as to eliminate the evil. As Rava said, “The Holy One created the Yetzer HaRah -the impulse towards evil; but He also created Torah as an antidote.”

Thus it is in our hands as a community and as individuals to make sure each of us becomes a hero, conquering our selfish ego urges by living a life filled with good deeds and self discipline. Training in self discipline is very important . Both the Yetzer HaRah and the Yetzer HaTov are part of each and every human personality.

You can see these traits manifested already in most two and three year olds. Some children grab toys, others share them. Some are sensitive to others, and some seem unaware of others’ feelings.

If children grow up without being taught any moral or social values it isn’t clear if the majority of them would be more good than evil or the reverse. A lot would depend on external pressures. But children do not grow up in a value free society. Upon the natural personality traits we call the Yetzer HaRah and the Yetzer HaTov are imposed the moral imperatives of the adult community. People often say that you have to teach children to be prejudiced. This is true.

But you also have to teach children to love the stranger. Both xenophobia and friendship are natural traits; and both of them need to be subjected to moral direction.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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