There’s a Jewish concept called the Yetzer Hara, or the evil inclination, which (along with the Yetzer Hatov, or the good inclination) at first glance seems to be a version of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but it’s more complicated than that. As usual.
The Yetzer Hara has often been reinterpreted not so much as an inclination to evil, but as an inclination that can lead to evil. The rabbis say that the inclination to reproduce, or to create new things, or to succeed in life all come from this “evil” inclination, and therefore we need some amount of it in life even to survive, let alone to thrive. We need to have ambition and impulsivity and individual drive, but there’s a limit; though they don’t clarify exactly where those limits might be.
The same rabbis say that if we took the Yetzer Hatov, the inclination for good, to an extreme we’d also have trouble. Because if we were always peaceful and calm, and never ambitious, we wouldn’t bother to grow crops, or have children, or make progress in science or art or philosophy, or even religion. We would be satisfied with whatever we had and peacefully die off. So the ideal is to find a balance between the two inclinations.
But I’m not sure why the rabbis felt it necessary to call something “evil” that, in itself, isn’t evil at all, and to call something “good” which is more like peacefulness rather than goodness, and I think these names, and therefore these judgements on our inclinations towards creativity or peacefulness, are part of the reason why we struggle so much, both with accepting our ambitions and with accepting our need for rest.
I’ve been thinking about this question of what’s really evil, and what is just called evil in our society, because I’ve been feeling a lot of envy for what other people have, or what they look like, or just who they are, and having these feelings has been making me feel like I’m a bad person, and stops me from being able to look at these feelings head on, because I’m afraid I will discover that I really am bad.
The Tenth Commandment says that we shouldn’t covet (or envy) what our neighbors have. The other commandments focus on doing or not doing something, but this one is about what we feel. Our ancestors, I guess, were afraid of their emotions and judged those emotions as if they were equal to bad action. But why?
Research on envy distinguishes between malicious envy and benign envy. Malicious envy is when you want to take something away from someone else, or hurt the person who has what you want, and benign envy is when you see that someone else has something you want and that motivates you to achieve that thing for yourself.
But what if envy itself is neutral, not positive or negative, just a human emotion that we can feel, and learn from, without having to judge ourselves for having it? What if envy itself isn’t benign or malicious at all, and it’s only what we do with our envy that gets us in trouble. What if we could allow ourselves to feel the envy, and then go on to feel the disappointment or grief of not being able to have what we want, or the determination and passion that helps us keep working for what we want. What if, by allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of our envy, we would realize that we don’t want what someone else has, but we want to feel the way they seem to feel, and then we can start to work on finding a better way to reach that feeling.
The problem is that most people, including me, have trouble looking at those shadow parts of ourselves without being overwhelmed by crushing guilt and self judgement. And who can sit with that for very long? And therefore we can’t get to all of the important insights that envy, and all of our other difficult and painful emotions, have to offer us.
The fact is, the danger doesn’t come from envy but from unacknowledged and unprocessed envy. If I can sit with the envy long enough, it can tell me what matters to me and what I want to change in my life or in the world around me.
Envy has been a constant companion for me, so maybe that’s why I take the Tenth Commandment so personally, and feel so judged by it. It feels as if God is leaning down from Mount Sinai and pointing a big finger at me and saying: you, you’re the bad one. But I can’t help feeling envious. I envy people who are healthy, or who grew up feeling safe, or who’ve had better luck in love and in their careers. But feeling envious is not the same as taking an evil or hurtful action towards another person.
Our fear that our emotions will take over and consume us is clearly old, both ancient in our society and old in our lifetimes, from childhood, when we had so little ability to manage the emotions overwhelming our little bodies.
But if we, as adults, can’t distinguish between our feelings and our actions, and call both equally evil, then we will forget to distinguish between the people who choose to act in destructive ways and the people who don’t, because we will think we are all the same. And if we stay in that place, then we won’t be able to take any real responsibility for how we react to our emotions, and that space between feeling and action, where we have the opportunity to choose the path we will take, goes unexplored.
I think what the rabbis were pointing to in the Yetzer Harah and the Yetzer Hatov is that they are inclinations, not acts; having an inclination, or a longing, or even a need, does not determine the action we will take as a result. It informs it, yes, but it doesn’t make anything inevitable. And we are so lucky to have these emotions and inclinations, these little angels (though definitely more than just two extremes, I think) sitting on our shoulders and telling us the more complex picture of what we feel and what we want, so that we can look at our feelings and look at the facts before we choose how to act.
I just wish we could give these inclinations better names, like, I don’t know, Maude and Henry, so we could treat them like the friends and confidants that they are meant to be, and not as the strangers, called Good and Evil, that they almost never really represent.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?