NiSh’ma: Yetzer Ha’ra

On this page, we offer three takes on the verse from Pirkei Avot that examines the nature of strength and wealth. Our commentators consider the relationship between our impulses and our satisfaction with what we have.

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Pirkei Avot 4:1

“Ben Zoma said: ‘Who is valiant? One who masters his yetzer (inclination) ... Who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has.’”

NiSh’ma: Yetzer Ha’ra

Raysh Weiss and Jonah RankBy Raysh Weiss and Jonah Rank:

Raysh Weiss and Jonah Rank: Convincing people to want what they don’t need was the marketing strategy of the advertising pioneer and genius Edward Bernays. Drawing on the group psychology theories of his uncle Sigmund Freud, his work built a strategy using the power of suggestion — that desire and perceived need can be created in the human psyche. When we speak of the “evil inclination” in Hebrew, we use the term “yetzer ha’ra.” How fitting that the Hebrew word for inclination, yetzer, shares a “root” (yud, tzedey, resh) with the word “yotzer,” Creator, or something made by the One who created the universe.

The question arises: How are we to understand the “ra,” the “bad,” in the phrase “yetzer ha’ra”? Exactly how bad is that bad? Is it merely undesired but acceptable (such as the materialistic urge to attain the kind of unnecessary commodity Bernays might try to peddle) or does the term denote pure evil and destructiveness? Or, is the Jewish understanding of this concept something altogether different?

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadilkov, a Hasidic commentator known by the name of his major work, Degel Machane Ephraim, shares a helpful teaching on the purpose of the yetzer ha’ra. He draws a likeness between the boards of the mishkan (the desert tabernacle) and humans: both are grounded in the earth yet reach above, and both are material but contain spiritual potential in their functions and purpose. Just as the most earthly and common materials were used to create a holy abode for the divine presence, so, too, are humans summoned to use their base nature — the nature that pushes toward the material (as opposed to the spiritual) — to create holiness out of the mundane. Jews are called upon to temper their drive toward materialism and physicality, the yetzer ha’ra, by using its counterpart, the yetzer hatov, the good inclination. We are called upon to direct those urges toward the creation of goodness and holiness — toward tikkun, radical transformative repair. As the early sage Ben Zoma taught, “Who is valiant? One who masters his yetzer.”

NiSh’ma: Yetzer Ha’ra

Robert J. SafersteinBy Robert J. Saferstein:

Robert J. Saferstein: Every now and then, I drift off into fond, childhood memories. Then I remember Shabbos mornings, and all traces of gladness vanish as quickly as they arrived.

My objections to attending services went beyond the stiff, wooden chairs and sad, Ashkenazic dirges. If the synagogue experience was supposed to be a vehicle for spiritual and communal connection, this clearly wasn’t working. There had to be a better way, and I was going to find it.

I’ve spent my life questioning the “fixed” nature of things to discover how they can be made better. We all want and need more; this is to be human. To be Jewish is to try to awaken the divine in everything.

The yetzer/yotzer relationship is the link between inclination and creation, intention and action. This is where innovation and revolution are born. Neither “good” nor “bad,” the yetzer/yotzer simply is: pure consciousness and the oneness of all things. It is the catalyst forward.

As a social entrepreneur, I’m always seeking to augment experience through form, style, and substance. It is our responsibility to elevate the mundane to the sacred and never settle for what is. We must reach higher, dig deeper, and go further so that we can step into what can be.

Condemning capitalism is a tired trope. While I may not need everything I want — a $6.50 fair-trade, mocha-frappe latte — if something provides value by making me feel good, should it really matter whether the desire is manufactured by a marketing firm or born from within?

Ben Zoma isn’t wrong — I’m quite grateful for what I have — but if we never yearn for more, we will never grow as a people or strive to better the world. And there is nothing rich or valiant about that.

NiSh’ma: Yetzer Ha’ra

Sheila Peltz WeinbergBy Sheila Peltz Weinberg:

Sheila Peltz Weinberg: The wisdom of these simple lines speaks to how we balance the relationship between aspiration and acceptance, effort and relaxation, compassion and mindfulness.

The first phrase affirms our aspirations: growth in character, wholesome connecting, and life-affirming qualities. We also engage in an active process of cultivating the qualities that soften our unwholesome inclinations (yetzar ha’ra) such as greed, hatred, and other forms of selfishness and reactivity. It takes strength to practice lovingkindness, generosity, and compassion. It takes courage to be responsive rather than reactive.

In the second phrase, rejoicing in one’s lot is the practice of gratitude — being accepting of what we have received. This is akin to mindfulness. We see what is true in our lives without pushing it away or clamoring for something else. We are curious and open, soft and receptive. This stance is more conducive to happiness. We have what we need. We are rich. This acknowledgement frees us from certain tensions, conflicts, and an excess of ambition — major causes of unhappiness. Even in the case of tragedy and loss, the willingness to open ourselves up to our grief with compassion and acceptance eventually allows wisdom and healing to emerge.

Both aspiration and acceptance depend on seeing clearly as we claim our freedom and our power. They are the foundation of training the mind and heart.I do find in our often judgmental, self-help culture that I personally need more support to settle into gratitude and acceptance than I do to wrestle with my inclinations. Maybe the heroic effort is to be kinder toward this frail and flawed human being.

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NiSh’ma: Yetzer Ha’ra

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