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New Year resolutions and why Rosh HaShanah precedes Yom Kippur

Judaism denies the dogma of original sin. Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur because our Jewish commitment to free will and the human ability to choose to do good (Rosh HaShanah) should be actively affirmed before we turn to confront our failures and our sins (Yon Kippur). In order to understand why we sometimes desire to help, and sometimes to hurt others we must understand that every one of us has a Yetzer haRa.

The Yetzer haRa is the drive to be the Alpha male: to win, to control, to show off with a big house, a fast car, a beautiful wife and high status. Uncontrolled, the Yetzer haRa leads to greed, jealousy, violence, cruelty and war. But when the wild impulse is tamed and domesticated it serves as a positive force; as Rabbi Judah teaches “without the Yetzer haRa a man wouldn’t build a house, or marry, or have children.”

People also have good impulses that produce empathy, sympathy, kindness, and co-operation. In many people, especially females who usually have lower levels of testosterone, these good impulses serve to reduce the negative impact of the Yetzer haRa. But the best antidote to tame the Yetzer haRa is the Yetzer haTov-a morally disciplined consciousness. Learning and internalizing ethical and religious duties forms this consciousness.

Awe of God also helps because it weakens the Yetzer haRa ego by forcing it to submit to the One Alpha of all humanity. Our rabbis taught that prayer, Mitsvot and the study of Torah were the best ways to domesticate the wild inclinations and impulses of the Yetzer haRa.

The Yetzer haRa is usually mistranslated as the evil impulse. But the word ra also means wild as in hayah ra’ah a wild animal. Thus Yetzer haRa refers to wild impulses or unchecked inclinations. The opponent or alternative to wild impulses are tamed or domesticated impulses. In other words a savage inclination verses a civilized inclination. Wild impulses can be tamed through study of Torah (to sensitize your conscience) and the self-discipline of Mitsvot (to strengthen your willpower).

Since it takes years of education and self-discipline to become a mentch the Yetzer haTov (the tamed impulse) isn’t there at birth, even though the soul is pure at birth. As Torah teaches, “The devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (8:21). Bereshit Rabba 34:12 comments, “From the moment he awakes to go forth from his mother’s womb, the yetzer ha-ra (untamed/wild impulse) is in him” and the sages say, “The Yetzer haRa is 13 years older than the Yetzer haTov. It begins growing with the fetus in the mother’s womb and comes out with him” (Avot of Rabbi Nathan).

While impulses like attention seeking, anger, envy, greed, rivalry, status and thrill seeking, selfishness and stubbornness can be found in many young children, Mitsvot and Torah study can tame them. “The Holy One did create the Yetzer haRa, but God also created Torah as an antidote.” (Talmud Baba Batra 16a). Other impulses like approval seeking, conflict avoidance and caution, friendship, group loyalty, impatience, sharing, sympathy, and trust can be strengthened and consciously directed to moral goals through doing Mitsvot and Torah study.

Feelings and personality traits that are wild are not intrinsically evil. They can, and should be tamed and directed to worthwhile endeavors. This is what Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman meant when he said that the Torah terms the Yetzer haRa “very good” (Genesis 1:31). “For scripture teaches us that were it not for the Yetzer HaRa a man would not built a house (status seeking), or take a wife (lust), or engage in commerce (greed). All such activities come from man’s rivalry (competitiveness) with others.” Thus, correctly directed by the Yetzer haTov all impulses from the wild side can serve God. This is why a repentant sinner stands at a height that even an always pious saint cannot reach.

In the east, the goal of most religious teachers was not to curb their lusts and passions or to redirect them into something positive. Instead they sought to extinguish them entirely and leave them behind permanently. Jewish teachers did not believe this is possible or desirable. It is not desirable because “if we slay the untamed impulse the entire civilized world will be destroyed (by asceticism and celibacy). So they painted its eyes (harnessed it) and let it go”(Talmud Yoma 69b).

It is not possible to extinguish the Yetzer HaRa because the Yetzer haRa will only be absent in the world to come (Genesis Rabbah 48:11). Indeed, Rabbi Judah taught, “The world is based on three things: rivalry, lust and mercy.” (Avot of Rabbi Nathan) Our goal should be not to extinguish but to harness our untamed impulses and redirect them to the service of our fellow creatures and the God who made us all. The challenge of taming our Yetzer is a continual one. The sages say, “A person’s yetzer grows daily.” (Sukkah 52b) and that’s one important reason to engage in daily Torah study.

If the study of Torah and doing Mitsvot enable people to tame their Yetzer how do non-Jews who do not do either of these become righteous? If the question was asked I am unaware of its answer. There was a 13th century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen, who explained why God destroyed the worlds He created prior to this one. At first God thought, “If I create a world without the Yetzer haRa there will be no amazement if the creatures are as good as angels, but if I put a strong Yetzer haRa into them they might be unable to overcome it.

Still, I might find among them a couple of righteous people like David (who had a very strong Yetzer haRa– ‘The greater the man the greater the Yetzer’ Talmud Sukkot 52a).” God created worlds and destroyed them for He did not find any righteous people in them… Then God said, “I created it (the Yetzer) to powerful, so there is no good in them; I will now create human beings with another Yetzer, the Yetzer haTov.”

Since Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Ha-Cohen doesn’t mention that these other worlds received Torah he must have thought that pre humans should have been able to achieve goodness by their wisdom alone. They couldn’t; but with the Yetzer haTov we now have, both Jews and non-Jews are adequately nourished by their own religion’s moral teaching. This is why the Rabbis say that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.

The views of the untamed impulse referred to above are big picture philosophical views. When preaching or counseling our sages simplified things into good verses evil; Torah study and Mitsvot verses sin and transgression. “People should always arouse their civilized impulses over their savage impulses.” (Talmud Brachot 5b) After all the talk of philosophy is done people must still make moral choices. As the Zohar states, “ God created the Yetzer haRa only in order to test humans.” (1:106)

One of the most important teachings about the Yetzer haRa for our day is that of a Hassidic Rabbi, Mikhal who said: When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.” Religious extremists are a fine example of how too much good becomes evil. As Solomon the wise said, “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 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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