Last week we discussed a person’s potential and the importance of noticing it. This week we shall discuss that which prevents one reaching that potential; the yetzer hara; evil inclination. In truth, the topic of the yetzer hara is not wholly relevant to our sedra, but we shall try to connect it somewhat; a good place to start is the last fifteen psukim or so. We are told that a man has an argument about which tribe he is supposed to be in [his father was Egyptian, and mother Jewish], and ends up cursing HaShem, for which he gets the death penalty. Granted, this person was probably annoyed, but what made him go to the drastic step of cursing HaShem after he had heard all the many prohibitions against idol worship, which is rooted first and foremost in loyalty to HaShem? And besides, he had seen the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the daily miracles of kindliness (eg the manna) done for us by HaShem - what pushed him to forget all of those and curse HaShem?
Let’s first backtrack a little and learn a bit about the yetzer hara. Just in case anyone needs convincing that they do indeed have a yetzer hara, I can offer two relatively common examples. First, it seems that we have no problem focusing intently on a ninety minute football game, yet when it comes to davening our minds seem to be on overdrive to think of anything in the world but the subject in question; tefillah. That pull not to concentrate, when it is within your everyday capabilities to focus is the work of the yetzer hara. Someone told Rav Shalom Schwadron that they were once walking in the market, when someone came up to them and smacked them on the chest; and before he could react, they hit him on the chest again. It was then that he realised that he was actually in the bracha of slach lanu in the amidah, and his mind was imagining that he was walking through the market! Another example is when one is not thinking about Torah during one’s day [or one is in the beis hamedrash learning, but the information is just not going in] - and then one goes to the toilet, where it is prohibited to think of Torah. Suddenly, everything becomes clear and one’s mind starts racing to think of Torah things - even though outside the toilet this was the last thing in one’s mind. Again, that is the work of the yetzer hara. It is very beneficial to learn about how the yetzer hara works, for just like in war, reports about the enemy are precious, so too in one’s internal battle it helps to learn about the enemy. So let’s learn!
There is a pivotal contradiction as to how exactly one deals with the yetzer hara. On the one hand, the gemarra (sukka 52b) instructs us to ‘pull the yetzer hara into the beis hamderash;’ ie to use the yetzer hara in a positive way to fuel your learning of Torah, e.g. if you are overly competitive, use that to spur you on to learn Torah better. In a similar vein, Rashi (devarim 6;5) writes that the phrase in the shema that we should love HaShem ‘with all our hearts’ refer to using both the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara to love HaShem. In other words, these two sources suggest that one can and should direct the yetzer hara to positive and constructive use. However, the gemarra (sukkah 52b) says that ‘the yetzer hara becomes stronger every day and is looking to kill you.’ And the gemarra (kiddushin 30b) notes that even HaShem calls the yetzer hara ‘evil ’in its essence. In other words, these two gemarras are warning us to keep well away from the yetzer hara; if one is being chased by a murderer one is not expected to invite him in and convince him to change his position - one is to keep well away and guard one’s own life. So too, in describing the yetzer hara in terms of a killer and calling it evil in essence, it seems that the way to tackle the yetzer hara is not to direct it towards the positive, but rather to take cover and keep well away. So what is the way to tackle the yetzer hara? In fact, if one wants to see this contradiction in concise form, just look at last of the morning brachos (hamaavir sheina…). There, we ask HaShem that ‘the yetzer hara should not rule over us’ (the keep away method), but then we ask HaShem to ‘force the yetzer hara to serve You;’ the using-it-for-good method. Which is it?
Personally, I always thought that the various sources were espousing two different levels of approaching the yetzer hara. One level (yirah) is keeping away from the yetzer hara. But a higher level (ahava) is to be able to use the yetzer hara for the good. Thus, whilst it is a risky business trying to convert this ‘murderer’ into good, if one manages to do this, he is given much more credit than if he merely stayed away. In a way, it is rather similar to the Arizal’s comment that on Purim one can reach a higher level than Yom Kippur, because it takes more to be able to eat, drink, and be merry with holy intentions than it does to fast and daven. However, though this may be a correct approach in resolving the contradiction, we shall quote an approach which I feel safer with. [And besides, I am not sure my answer deals with HaShem calling the yetzer hara ‘evil’ in essence; if its essence is evil, then one surely keeps away - don’t play with fire.] A commentary on the ‘Siddur HaGra’ called ‘Siach Yitzchak’ brings us bad news in dealing with the above contradiction in the bracha hama’avir sheina. One would ordinarily think that they have one yetzer hara, but the Siack Yitzchak informs us that we actually have two. One is called the spiritual yetzer hara (yetzer hara ruchni) and the other is called the physical yetzer hara (yetzer hara gufani). The spiritual yetzer hara is the logically irrational force that tries to instil a desire to rebel against spirituality - the lack of tefillah concentration is his fault. But the physical yetzer hara is the natural outcome of the fact that we are physical people, and have a natural drive towards physical things. Thus, on the one hand this physical yetzer hara drives us to eat, etc. which is obviously positive to keep ourselves alive, but it can push us too far; one can be obsessed with food, wealth, and other material things to their ultimate detriment. And it is these two different yetzer haras that the above sources are referring to. Regarding the spiritual yetzer hara, the gemarra warns us to keep well away (that ‘the yetzer hara should not rule over us’) for it is evil in essence. But regarding the physical yetzer hara, the gemarra instructs us to use that physical drive for the positive; by uplifting the physical world as a vehicle for connection to HaShem, eg making brachos on foods (‘force the yetzer hara to serve you’).
Let’s now return to our initial question regarding the person who cursed HaShem in our sedra; how could he have ignored clear prohibitions heard firsthand, as well as HaShem’s constant miraculous kindness? Perhaps the answer is that it was this spiritual yetzer hara which gave him a ‘natural’ desire to rebel against spirituality - even if it was contrary to logic. In fact, this is the meaning of a gemarra (sanhedrin) that a baby is not given a yetzer hara until it is born, for ‘if it would be given a yetzer hara whilst still in the womb, it would kick its way out (and die).’ Why is this so? For the yetzer hara referred to here is the spiritual yetzer hara, who tells a person to break out of anything that they see as controlling them (not letting out that it itself seeks to control them, of course), and thus if this yetzer hara entered a baby in its mother’s womb, the baby would kick its way out in order that it should not be ‘under the control’ and subservient to someone else - even though this ‘subservience’ is for their own good and breaking out of it causes death. It was this desire to rebel and avoid subservience that was part of the downfall of the person who cursed Hashem.
In summary, let us learn from the yetzer hara’s tactics and where possible use it for the positive, Have a great Shabbes,

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