ROSH HASHANAH 5778
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
If you’re old enough to remember a time before you could fast-forward through TV commercials, then you probably remember a theme in some commercials – usually ones that were food-related – where a person faced some sort of temptation, and an angel and a devil were sitting on opposite shoulders, each advancing his cause. The angel was usually dressed in a white robe with a halo, and the devil was dressed in red with a pitchfork and a tail.
Along with suggesting that somehow we’d get to heaven if we used that particular product, the commercials were designed to appeal to our inherent sense of right and wrong, of good and bad, of the choices we have to make and the way we’re supposed to behave. The writers may not have realized it, but they were using a very, ancient Jewish idea in their advertising; the idea that within each person are the “good” inclination or urge, and the “evil” one – what are called in Hebrew the yetzer ha tov and the yetzer ha ra.
In theory, God gave us both – and we’re born with both; but the 7th century commentary Avot de Rabbi Natan says that the yetzer hara is 13 years older than the yetzer hatov. It says, “While still in the mother’s womb, the yetzer hara begins to develop in a person. If he begins to violate Shabbat, nothing stops him. If he commits murder, nothing stops him. If he goes off to another sin, nothing stops him.”
Thirteen years later, the yetzer hatov is born. Now, when the person violates Shabbat, the yetzer ha tov rebukes him, “Airhead – the literal Hebrew translation is “empty one!” Don’t you know it says ‘Everyone who violates it will surely be put to death?’” If he is about to commit murder, it rebukes him, “Airhead! Don’t you know it says ‘Whoever sheds a man’s blood, by man will his blood be shed?’” If he is about to engage in a sexual sin, it rebukes him, “Airhead! Don’t you know it says ‘Both the adulterer and the adulteress will surely be put to death?’”
And I thought my generation invented the term “airhead”!
Another way to explain these good and evil inclinations comes from Rabbi Isaac Arama, a 15th-century Spanish philosopher and commentator. He said, “For the first 13 years of life, one rebels, but in the 14th year, the light of intelligence appears in him, and then he becomes bar mitzvah – a “son of the commandments,” and subject to the punishment of a human court. This 14th year is connected to the search for chametz on the 14th day of Nisan, the evening before Passover. When we search for chametz, we use a candle or a flashlight, so we can see into the deepest darkest corners. Here again, an ancient idea of light–of knowledge and discernment coming into play–suggests another more modern phrase: “the lightbulb went on!” and the “airhead” begins to learn the ways of the world. Not only does he learn that there are consequences to actions, but realizes that he himself is responsible for his actions, no one else.
We discussed this on Shabbat a few weeks ago during parashat Ki Tetze when we read about the ben sorer u moreh, the “wayward and disobedient son.” As modern, enlightened individuals we don’t particularly like the idea of having the elders of the city stone this boy to death, and neither did our Sages of Blessed Memory, our ancient rabbis. The Mishnah discusses this at length, and ultimately, it becomes pretty close to impossible for this sentence to ever be carried out.
How? The Rabbis wondered, “at what age can he become a wayward and rebellious son?” They determine that there’s a very narrow window of time; a young boy who hasn’t reached puberty – the age of 13 in this case – isn’t responsible for keeping the commandments, so he’s off the hook. Once he’s a man, perhaps 13 and a half, he’s no longer under his parents’ authority, so what can they do?
Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying “I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.” Wouldn’t we all like to know? Or maybe we wouldn’t.
Did God create humans with capacity to do terrible things, or as Rabbi Leo Baeck, who was deported to Thereisenstadt at the age of 70 and survived, said, “Evil is the result of God giving man free will and then dignifying him by not interfering.” Being created in God’s image is certainly multi-dimensional.
The knowledge that humans were created with an evil urge or inclination comes from the very end of parashat Bereshit, Genesis:
וַיַּ֣רְא יי כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃
“The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind (or heart) was nothing but evil all the time.”
Then we’re told that God regretted having created humanity, but that Noah had found favor in God’s eyes. We know what happened next: Noah built an ark, it rained for 40 days, and everything that wasn’t in the ark died. After everything had dried and life began anew, God promised never to destroy the earth again because of humans,
כִּ֠ייֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו
“because the creations of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”
Now before you look at these passages as a way to justify bad behavior because, “let’s face it, that’s how I was made,” let’s go back to the Creation story. On the 6th day God created Adam, the first human, from the dust of the earth, and said, v’hinei tov m’od, “and behold, it was very good.” At the end of every other day of creation, the text tells us va-yar elo-him ki tov, “and God saw that it was good.” Regarding this change of phrase, Rabbi Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel, “‘it was good” refers to the yetzer ha tov, and behold, ‘it was very good’ refers to the yetzer ha ra. So the Sages ask, “Can the yetzer ha ra be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the yetzer hara, or the Evil Desire, no man would build a house, go into business, get married or have children. We need both positive and negative urges and desires in order to be fully human, and to engage in all of the activities that God created us for.
The yetzer ha ra was often used in ancient times to explain why good people sometimes did bad things, but rather than being simple concepts, the yetzer, the desire, stands for a complex of physical desires which, the rabbis thought, need to be trained – if not resisted – by the soul’s rational parts. One is needed to balance the other.
One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is hayom harat olam, “the day of the birth of the world.” Rosh Hashanah celebrates and reminds us of creation–the very beginning–or at least the beginning of what we can comprehend, when God spoke and the universe came into being. Humans are the culmination of God’s work; the creation that would have dominion and stewardship over what had already been created, and that together would form the complex ecosystems and societies in which we live.
A recent blog post by Rabbi Richard Address of Jewish Sacred Aging spoke about this complexity and how quickly people and situations can change. Within days, we went from the hatred and violence that took place at the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to watching neighbors helping neighbors, and strangers – many at risk to their own lives–rescuing people when Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast with devastating rains, winds and flooding. In Houston, and following that in Florida with Irma, no one asked a person in need if he or she was Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat or even a card-carrying member of the KKK. And given how far many alt-right people traveled to Charlottesville, those people could easily have been among the rescuers and helpers.
In one week we saw the worst and the best that humanity has to offer; and how incredible is that? We saw the yetzer ha ra in action and the yetzer ha tov. Five years ago, when all but one Texas republican voted against federal aid following Hurricane Sandy, yup, we might say that was their yetzer ha ra in action.
A recent editorial in the New Jersey Star Ledger began, “New Jersey has a message for you, Houston: We’ve got your back. Many of us have been there, having lost everything in Hurricane Sandy. We remember the heroism, the random acts of kindness; what it felt like to finally return home, only to find a life’s worth of possessions swept away. And even though all but one Texas Republican voted against the federal Sandy aid package in 2012 to rebuild our roads and tunnels and help thousands of our stranded storm victims, we don’t hold grudges.”
Here, on Long Island, we saw people and organizations stepping up and donating money to various relief organizations, and bringing needed items to be loaded onto trucks bound for the Houston area. More locally, when a Muslim family that has lived in Malverne for more than 20 years received hate messages, people in the village joined forces and wrote letters of support and love to the family.
Just as we all live with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other – “have the ice cream … no, go for the fat free yogurt – we all have the good and evil urges at work in our lives.
I’m not sure that there’s really a good way to translate yetzer ha ra, especially the word ra, which means bad or evil. There’s no question that plenty of people do bad things, and the two verses I spoke about earlier in parashat Noach, where “the designs of man are always evil,” point to that. But every person has the yetzer ha ra, and the overwhelming majority of us don’t ever commit crimes or intentionally hurt others or destroy things.
There must be more to the idea of having these two urges competing within us. The commentary in Avot de Rabbi Natan appears to equate violating Shabbat and adultery with murder, because the Torah holds all three on an equal level, and all three could have qualified for death by stoning. In reality life is much more nuanced, and even newspapers aren’t all black and white anymore.
If the yetzer ha ra is what impels a man to get married or get a job, then it certainly can’t be all bad, or all evil. It can’t be something we want to get rid of like a few extra pounds or gray hair. The 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote in Derech Hashem, “The Way of God,” that, “Man is the creature created for the purpose of being drawn close to God. He is placed between perfection and deficiency, with the power to earn perfection. Man must earn this perfection, however, through his own free will … Man’s inclinations are therefore balanced between good and evil, and he is not compelled toward either of them. He has the power of choice and is able to choose either side knowingly and willingly.”
Considering that last year I spoke about the need to give up the desire for perfection, I’m not sure I completely agree with Rabbi Luzzatto’s assessment, but I do understand where he’s coming from, and that is the essence of Rosh Hashanah and teshuva, the “turning” or “repentance” that we engage in as we prepare to ask for God’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur.
Your being here today means that your yetzer ha tov won out. When you got up your yetzer ha ra said, “It’s such a nice day, you should be on the golf course or the beach.” Or, “On a day like today you’re going to schlep to shul?”
Basically, life is full of choices. Just this past Shabbat, in parshat Nitzavim, we read,
הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”
Choosing life and blessing doesn’t just mean doing the right thing all the time; no one is perfect and we all mess up. We messed up yesterday, we’ll mess up again tomorrow. We will knowingly allow our negative desires to win the internal struggle and ignore the part that says, “Airhead! Don’t you know what will happen if you do that?” And we’ll be reminded that we’re human, which is what God intended.