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Yetzer Tov and Yetzer hara

The Dual Impulses of Free Will

By Shlomo Phillips © 12.29.10 (last updated 08.25.2013)

Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara

At Genesis 2:7 the Torah states that Elohim (God) "formed" (in Hebrew vayyitzer) humans with two contradictory impulses. The spelling of this word is unusual. Rather than one Yod as would be normal (i.e. vayitzer), this word has two: vaYYitzer. The rabbis determined from this that these two Yods (Ys) signify the word yetzer, or "impulse"and reveals an important secret about how we were formed.

This understanding negates the Christian doctrine of "original sin" theorized originally by Augustine of Hippo because it shows that HaShem originally created us with dual impulses: one positive (yetzer tov) and the other negative (yetzer ra). Which impulse we submit to is up to us.

This dual impulse empowers us, indeed forces us, to exorcise free will. As part of our very being we are driven to exorcise individuality. We were not created as mindless drones and we can not please HaShem by acting as such. We honor our Creator by making wise use of these two innate faculties.

The Anti-biblical Doctrine of Original Sin

The Christian Doctrine of Original Sin is a commonly held dogma theorized originally by Augustine of Hippo ("Saint Augustine" -- November 13, 354 - August 28, 430). This dogma says that when Adam and Chava (Eve) ate the forbidden fruit a sin nature entered them and thereby all of their future descendents. Because of this original sin Christians believe that everyone is conceived/born a sinner and destined to Hell (a related unbiblical doctrine) unless they get themselves "saved" according to the group's definition before they die:

For Catholics and Orthodox Christians this means that unless one is a member in good standing of the Catholic and/or Eastern Orthodox Church they will be eternally lost and consigned to eternal torture: "Outside the Church there is no salvation" (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus) they maintain. The Catholic Church is moderating this view today in preparation for their role in the coming global religion.

For most other Christians this means that unless one "accepts Jesus as personal Lord and Savior," is "born again" -- and according to some groups unless one meets various other conditions (for instance certain words must be said upon baptism, one must speak in unknown tongues, one must accept certain beliefs (the Trinity etc), one must live a good life and so on -- one goes to Hell upon death. All such views are based on the belief that the "sin nature" is inherited by all humanity from Adam and Eve's initial transgression. Various groups explain this in different ways.

The biblical doctrine of yetzer tov and yetzer ra rejects this view entirely. According to the Bible the same essential choices are placed before each of us as were placed before Adam and Eve. Will we harmonize with our positive or negative impulses. We obey HaShem or will we go our own way? This is the choice we must all make.

As Micah says:

Micah 6:6 "With what can I come before ADONAI to bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings? with calves in their first year?
7 Would ADONAI take delight in thousands of rams with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Could I give my firstborn to pay for my crimes, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
8 Human being, you have already been told what is good, what ADONAI demands of you - no more than to act justly, love grace and walk in purity with your God.

And Y'shua (Jesus) taught the same:

Matthew 22:35 and one of them who was a Torah expert asked a sh'eilah [tricky question] to trap him:
36 "Rabbi, which of the mitzvot in the Torah is the most important?"
37 He told him, "`You are to love ADONAI your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'
38 This is the greatest and most important mitzvah.
39 And a second is similar to it, `You are to love your neighbor as yourself.'
40 All of the Torah and the Prophets are dependent on these two mitzvot."

Hence Joshua's famous challenge:

Joshua 24:5 If it seems bad to you to serve ADONAI, then choose today whom you are going to serve! Will it be the gods your ancestors served beyond the River? or the gods of the Emori, in whose land you are living? As for me and my household, we will serve ADONAI!"
Are you catching the theme here?

We are free to choose our own paths. Indeed it is demanded of us! We can serve HaShem with our mind, heart and body, or we can rebel and go our own way. The Holy Writings are intended for those who wish know and serve HaShem. For those who wish to live harmoniously with HaShem we have Torah to guide us. Guide us, not dictate. For more on Torah see my study here.

Balance is essential. Our goal as Jews or Noahidim is to voluntarily establish harmony with HaShem. To choose the yetzer tov impulse over the yetzer hara. This is essential if we want to know true peace and meaning in our lives.

Tradition and Free Will

While we seek to establish and maintain personal living relationships with HaShem in the present moment, understanding how we came to be here through the past and what He has already revealed is vitally important. This is the task of Tradition. As George Santayana truly observed, if we fail to learn the lessons of the past we are condemned to repeat them. Judaism is all about these lessons. Many of them are codified in our traditions.

Tradition is essential! However if our traditions disconnect us from a living experience of Torah and/or from HaShem's living Presence (God forbid!) then we need to rethink those traditions and reconnect with the root of the Tree. This is what so many of our rabbonim have done and taught. The Ba'al Shem Tov and later Rebbe Nachman realized that Torah study with active emuna was not enough.

The Misnagdim (opponents of the Chassidim) say that the main thing is to study Torah. The Chassidim say the main thing is prayer. But I say: Pray and study and pray. Rebbe Nachman, Siach Sarfey Kodesh 1-87.
At the same time,
Don't follow excessive stringencies in your practice of the Torah. "God does not rule over His creatures with tyranny" (Avodah Zarah 3a) - "The Torah was not given to ministering angels" (Berachot 25b)...

There is no need to look for extra stringencies: this is foolish and confusing. The essence of serving God is simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah and carry out many good deeds without seeking out or inventing unnecessary restrictions. Simply follow the path of our forefathers. "The Torah was not given to ministering angels."

There is nothing that you absolutely must do or else. If you can, you can. But if you cannot: "God exempts a person under duress" (Bava Kama 28b). Rebbe Nachman, Sichot Haran #235.

HaShem is not looking for slaves and "yes men." Free will is essential because without it He receives no Glory. By our will we bring glory to Him every time we choose the path of yetzer tov.

Free will does not mean anarchy. It is foolish to start from scratch in every new generation as though nothing of value had been passed down to us! We must learn from the traditions of the past because they are our anchors to the present and future! As the children of God we move forward from kindergarten, to elementary school, to high school and so on. Once we finish elementary school we do not return to kindergarten. We build on what is already established seeking ever more knowledge and understanding. This is Derech HaShem, the Way of God.

Levels of Emuna

Understanding the past, both the positive and negative, empowers us to exercise our free will in His service with wisdom. There are three levels of emuna:

  1. Basic level emuna: The realization that everything comes from HaShem through Divine Providence.
  2. Mid-level emuna: The realization that everything comes from HaShem through Divine Providence AND that everything that comes is for our very best.
  3. Advanced level emuna: The realization that everything comes from HaShem through Divine Providence, that everything that comes is for our very best, AND that everything that comes comes for a reason. That in everything HaShem is teaching and leading us.
Armed with even basic level emuna we can understand that when we choose yetzer tov we do so by the Will of HaShem and that our growing ever closer to Him is our destiny and His desire for us.

We are not to serve HaShem as drones or fanatics, but as greatly beloved sons and daughters of the King of kings! As children of the King our futures are limitless. As we harmonize our will with His Will true joy and meaning unfold before us. We are free to choose our course but only one, Derech HaShem, will lead us Home to Shalom.

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