Yetzer Tov and Yetzer hara

The Dual Impulses of Free Will

© By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman*

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Free Will

There is an ongoing debate about free will verses predestination. Understanding the teachings concerning Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara clarifies much of this. As humans we all have free will. Our freedom is not unlimited however. As the expression says, 'Your freewill to swing your fist ends at my nose'. Free will is balanced with personal and collective responsibility. In this piece we consider how this freedom-predestination balance is maintained.

Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara

At Bereshit/Genesis 2:7 the Torah states that Elohim (the G-d of gods) "formed" (in Hebrew vayyitzer) humans with two contradictory impulses. The spelling of this word yetzer is unusual. Rather than one yod as would be normal in this text the word has two yods, as va-YYitzer. The rabbis determined from this that these two yods (or Y's) signify the word yetzer, or "impulse" and reveals an important secret about how we are "formed."

This understanding negates the Christian doctrine of "original sin" theorized originally by Augustine of Hippo because it shows that HaShem originally created humanity with these dual impulses: one positive (yetzer tov) and the other negative (yetzer ra). From the very beginning of human existence utilizing these dual impulses have been up to us. We can follow either impulse or blend them according to the freedom that HaShem has given to each of us. Our free will makes this possible and is essential to the Will of HaShem.

This dual impulse empowers us, indeed forces us, to exercise free will. As part of our very being we are driven to exercise individuality and choise. We are not created to be mindless automatons and more importantly we can not please HaShem by acting as such. We honor our Creator by making wise use of these two innate faculties. The Besht (the Baal Shem Tov) emphasized this point often. We must choose to harmonize with HaShem if we want to receive His blessings and the blessings of the coming Olam Haba (the Messianic World to Come).

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 falsely claims that when Adam and Chava (Eve) ate the forbidden fruit a sin nature entered them and thereby all of their future descendents like an unseen virus. Because of this theorized 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 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 as they seek to embrace their role in the proposed global religion of the Global Union of States or New World Order.

For most other Christians this means that unless one personally "accepts Jesus as 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 like the Trinity etc., one must live a good life and so on -- one will be consigned to Hell upon death. All such views are based on the false belief that the "sin nature" is inherited by all humanity. That is, all but their god Jesus.

However the biblical and rabbinic doctrine of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara rejects this dogma entirely and demonstrates the justice of HaShem towards each individual. The Bible accords the same essential choices before each of us. This is the source of our free will. Will we choose to harmonize with our positive or negative impulses? Will we obey HaShem or will we go our own way? This is the choice we each must make. As HaShem told Moses:

Shemot (Exodus) 32:33 And HaShem said to Moses: "Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!"

And again:
Yechezkel (Ezekiel) 18:20 The soul that sins, it shall die; a son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, and a father shall not bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Rather, as Micah says:

Micah 6:6 "With what shall I come before the Lord, bow before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; only to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God.

Hence Joshua's famous challenge:

Yehoshua (Joshua) 24:15 And if it displeases you to serve HaShem, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell, but as for me and my household, we shall serve HaShem."
Are you catching the theme here? "...As for me and my household, we shall serve HaShem."

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 go our own way. Our Holy Jewish Writings are intended for those who wish to know and serve HaShem. For those who wish to live harmoniously with HaShem we have Torah to guide us. To guide us, not to dictate to us as slaves. 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 ha tov impulse over the yetzer hara. This is essential if we want to know true peace and meaning in our lives. But its up to us both as inviduals, as Jews, and as a planet. "...As for me and my household, we shall serve HaShem."

Tradition and Free Will

While we seek to establish and maintain our personal relationships with HaShem in the present moment, understanding how we came to be here through the past and what He has already revealed to us through our sages and direct experiences, is essential. This is the goal of our Traditions. 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 learning from these lessons.

Tradition is essential! At the same time, if our traditions straightjacket us and disconnect us from a living experience of Torah and/or from HaShem's living Presence today (G-d forbid!) then we need to rethink those traditions and reconnect with the root of the Tree. This, incidentally, is our with Der Alt Weg Chassidus. This is what so many of our rabbonim have done and taught in the past. The Ba'al Shem Tov and later Rebbe Nachman and other Chassidic masters realized that Torah study without active emunah was not enough.

The Misnagdim (the opponents of Chassidus) 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.
Don't follow excessive stringencies in your practice of the Torah. "G-d 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 G-d 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: "G-d 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 HaShem receives no glory. By our will we bring glory to HaShem 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 history and traditions of the past because they are our anchors to the present and future! As the children of G-d we move forward from "kindergarten," to "elementary school," to "high school" and beyond as we choose to progress. 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 G-d.

Three Levels of Emunah

Understanding the past, both the positives and negatives, empowers us to exercise our free will in His service, with wisdom. There are three essential levels of emunah or active faith and trust:

  1. Basic Level Emunah: The realization that everything comes from HaShem through Divine Providence.
  2. Mid-level Emunah: The realization that everything comes from HaShem through Divine Providence AND that everything that comes is for our very best.
  3. Advanced Level Emunah: The realization that everything comes from HaShem through Divine Providence, that everything that comes is for our ultimate good, AND that everything that comes is for a reason. That in everything HaShem is teaching and leading us onward towards greater harmony with Him. THIS is our ultimate good.
Armed with even basic level emunah 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. In this way free will and destiny blend into our eventual redemption.

We must not serve HaShem as mindless drones nor as 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 by choice true joy and meaning unfold before us. We are each free to choose our course, but in the end only Derech HaShem will lead us Home to Shalom and Joy.


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* Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © December 29, 2010 (last updated June 21, 2017)

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