To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Evil Inclination.
Day 18: The Evil Inclination
The Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, is the force of evil present in this world. Every person is born with both Good and Evil inclinations, and both can grow and shrink with a person’s actions. But no person is ever able to completely withstand the Evil Inclination. The Evil Inclination resides in the human heart. In the World to Come, the Messianic Age, the Evil Inclination will testify against us. It will be our own personal Satan, or Adversary. As a person rises in greatness, so too does his Evil Inclination. This is why great men and women often sin to a greater degree.
In this world, the Evil Inclination is always stronger than the Good, and it is said that even the angels succumb to its power. When Shemchazay and Azazel fell to Earth, the Evil Inclination overcame them and they lusted after the daughters of men. All of us would be overwhelmed by the Evil Inclination, if not for God’s help.
The Evil Inclination has seven names. God called it Evil. Moses called it the Uncircumcised. David called it Unclean. Solomon called it the Enemy. Isaiah called it the Stumbling Block. Ezekiel called it stone. And Joel called it the Hidden One.
After God created the Evil Inclination, he repented for having brought it into the world.
In the Messianic Age, God will slay the Evil Inclination in front of all the world. To the righteous, the Evil Inclination will appear as large as a mountain. To the wicked, small as a thread. Both will weep, but for different reasons. The righteous will say, “How were we able to withstand such a mountainous evil?” And the wicked will say, “How is it that we couldn’t defeat a single thread?”
The Myth’s Origins
The myth derives directly from Genesis 6:5, where it says, “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And also Genesis 6:21, which reads, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate 61a, it reads, “The evil inclination resembles a fly and dwells between the two entrances of the heart.” There are many more places where the notion of the Evil Inclination is elaborated upon.
The Yetzer Hara is not seen a demonic force, but rather man’s misuse of the physical body toward lust and gluttony and greed.
Some Thoughts on the Myth
Here we have the evolution of an interesting concept. Humanity recognizes that the needs of the body are essentially animalistic. We have cravings for food, for sex, for power. But if we follow these needs to the degree to which the body craves them, we may reach a debased state. Thus the notion of holiness came to be seen as one who resists the Evil Inclination, that is, he or she resists the pull to overindulge in excess food, lustful sex, and ambition.
The ancient rabbis recognized a problem here. Why would God give humanity such desires if he didn’t want us to fulfill them? One interpretation was that he realized this was a mistake, and repented. But the notion that God erred seems antithetical to notions of God’s perfection. Even the sages noted that one could never be completely free of the Evil Inclination. If even the angels succumb, how are we then supposed to resist the bodily urges?
This kind of self-denial — the moderation of food, abstinence or severe control of sexual desires, the letting go of all ambition — is common throughout all major faiths. The ascetic or monkish traditions are seen as the path to holiness and perfection throughout the world. Compare this to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Blake sees this self-denial as a weakening of the human soul, a dimming of the human candle. Blake says:
“Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.”
What seems at first a simple proposition, that we have a choice between Good and Evil, becomes more complex. All faiths seem to recognize that we are animals, and that only by overcoming our baser animal instincts can we rise above the brutality of the animal kingdom to reach our true spiritual nature, which is our birthright. And yet we are animals — evolved apes — with drives and needs and desires, and as we have seen in many faiths, denying one’s desires only leads to repression and perversion. I think this is what Blake was reacting to, this suppression of natural will. But the reverse of self-denial is a type of hedonism, indulging in sensual pleasure at the expense of the body. The middle way, as the Buddha posits, seems the best route to me. Neither denying one’s animal instincts nor allowing them to grow too powerful. But it’s important that we recognize that at times, we will fail. There will be times when our animal nature will rule us, and we should not be ashamed of this, for this is who we are. We must accept it and move on.
Tomorrow’s Myth: The Angel Shemchazay and Ishtar