"Inside every man there is a struggle between good an evil that cannot be resolved," exclaims Homer Simpson. This wisdom echoes rabbinic discussions in the Talmud about the יצר טוב (yetzer tov), our good inclination, and the יצר הרע (yetzer hara), our evil inclination. The Jewish tradition teaches us that God imbued humankind with a healthy balance of good and evil. Each proclivity cannot exist without the counterbalance of the other. While we might gravitate to work towards a world bereft of evil inclinations, the rabbis advise us otherwise:
אלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד בנים", were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build houses, would not marry, and would not bear children (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7).
A world without the yetzer hara's manifestations of competition, jealously, greed, sexuality, and anger also lacks the fundamental components of society: business, government, and procreation. Balance is the ideal, but we should never underestimate the power of the yetzer hara. Despite Homer Simpson's wise words about the coexistence of good and evil, he visualizes his evil inclination (Evil Homer) dancing over the tombstone of his yetzer tov (Good Homer), and shaking maracas singing: "I am Evil Homer, I am Evil Homer." The yetzer hara exists within all of us, and sometimes it flares up to tempt us into sinful action.
No one is immune from the yetzer hara, not even the most righteous of rabbinic sages in the Talmud. In fact, the rabbis teach that the most prominent figures in society are the most susceptible. "כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו, the greater the person, the greater the evil inclination (B. Sukkot 52a)." This principle emerges most prevalently in relation to sexual sin. In tractate Kiddushin, the rabbis relate a series of stories about famous rabbis whose evil inclinations for sexual lust nearly or actually overpower their yetzer tov (B. Kiddushin 81a-b). Each tale offers a moral about understanding the yetzer hara within us.
- Rav Amram the Pious ascends a ladder* to proposition a group of beautiful women. Realizing he is about to give in to his temptation, he screams out "fire in the house of Amram!" By openly declaring his temptation, he is able to subdue his inclination, and create a group to support him in tempering his burning fire of lust.
- Rabbi Akiva has a tendency to mock sinners (people who give into their yetzer hara), so Satan decides to test him. Satan transforms himself into a beautiful woman atop a palm tree* to lure Akiva. As Akiva begins to climb the tree, Satan releases him from his grip. The story teaches us not to belittle the power of the yetzer hara, for no one is immune from it.
- Chiyah Bar Ashi** would pray for God to save him from his sexual yetzer hara. His wife overhears his prayer. Although a husband is required to provide for his wife sexually every week, the text tells us that he had not done so in a number of years. Chiyah Bar Ashi's wife decides to dress up like the town's famous prostitute Charuta.*** In seducing her husband, she deceives him into believing that he committed adultery; she also teaches an important lesson. Complete repression of the yetzer hara leads to its explosive and sinful manifestation.
We cannot escape the yetzer hara, nor should we try. God implanted within us both good and evil for a practical purpose. Life should be lived in a healthy balance of good and evil. Rav Amram (the man on fire) teaches later in the Talmud that no single day can pass without a person considering sinful thought (B. Baba Batra 164b). The important thing is to act in ways that favor our yetzer tov, while letting our yetzer hara remain only as an unfulfilled propensity.
*The image of a ladder and the image of a palm tree appear to be sexual euphemisms for arousal.
**The name used here puns on the yetzer hara being both animalistic and a burning fire. חיה–animal. אש– fire.
*** The name חרותה, is another play on the idea of the yetzer hara being like fire. An English translation of this name might be "Hottie"