Recently I had the good fortune to study a teaching with my mentor Rabbi Miles Krassen based on an insightful reading of a verse from this week’s Torah portion by Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudikov, known by his nom de plume as the Degel Mahane Efraim. He was one of the closest disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement, a mystical charismatic movement that developed in Eastern Europe in the early 18th century.
The opening of this week’s parsha finds Rebecca, our matriarch and Isaac’s wife, praying fervently to God for children. She conceives and the parsha describes the experience of her pregnancy: “The children struggled together within her…” (Genesis 25:22).
This verse viewed from a hassidic perspective departs from the literal meaning, transforming this biblical story into a powerful tool for personal, moral and spiritual growth.
The Degel Mahane Efraim states that Esau and Jacob, the twins struggling in Rebeca’s womb, symbolise the struggle of the yetzer tov and yetzer hara in each and every one of us, a struggle that we engage in every day of our lives. Judaism teaches us that a person has two inclinations: the yetzer tov, the good inclination and the yetzer hara, the evil, often understood as the selfish or self-protective inclination. In our tradition as well as in other religious paths, human beings are seen as being a battle ground between these two seemingly opposing inclinations. We are often taught that the yetzer hara is a negative force which needs to be subdued by the yetzer tov. However, many sources in Judaism speak not about the destruction of the yezter hara but of the necessity for us to transform it for the performance of good in the world. Our tradition teaches that we have been given the ability to choose the moral path even when we are under the influence of the selfish/self-protective inclination. We have the capacity to use our yetzer hara for the greater good.
The Degel expresses this powerfully when he states that the word yitrozzetzu (struggling), the term used in the verse above, is related to the word ratzutz (broken) in Hebrew. These two inclinations are always struggling within us, breaking us in half, tearing us apart. Sometimes the selfish inclination subdues the good and sometimes the good triumphs over the selfish/self-protective, but these two voices within us are in continuous struggle.
Rashi, a famous mediaeval Biblical commentator, offers an interesting reading of the verse: “And God said to her: two nations (goyim) are in your womb…” (Genesis 25:23). Instead of reading the word as goyim, he suggests reading it as geim, which means pride. He writes that when a person walks in the world with too much pride and arrogance it contributes to a strengthening of evil/selfishness in the world.
The important message here is that selfish and irresponsible behaviour in the world is not something that exists beyond our control. We make choices every day, whether to operate from our good or our selfish inclination or whether to put our selfish/self-protective inclination at the service of the greater good.
Collectively this effort – to choose the good – is more important now than in any other time in human history. As we confront the reality of global warming and environmental collapse, our beautiful blue planet and all its multifarious expressions of life need our attention. As our world leaders travel to Glasgow to commit to ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets by 2030, thus putting in place mechanisms to save our planet, we all have our part to play in reducing our carbon footprint and treading lightly on the earth. Activating our yezter tov for this purpose is a critical sacred imperative for every human being.
A very important and insightful teaching from our Rabbis focuses on the yezter hara:
“The ancient Sages decided that they were going to imprison and capture the yetzer hara. So they ordered a complete fast for three days…. Whereupon the yetzer hara was surrendered to them. The yetzer hara said to them, “Realise that if you kill me, the world is finished.” They held the yezter hara for three days and then looked at the whole land of Israel, no one procreated, no one attended to the land, the cows did not produce milk….
The Sages decided to free the yetzer hara as they realised that the world could not function without it.
(Yoma, 69b, Babylonian Talmud)
The yetzer hara has a purpose; we need to be ambitious, think of ourselves and prioritise our needs but it is also important to balance our needs with the needs of others. When the yetzer tov and the yezter hara are working together in a seamless graceful dance, instead of constantly struggling with each other, we have balance in our lives. It is a joyful balance that allows us to pursue our passions in the world in a way that is always considerate of others, and to be of service to the needs of our family, friends, community and the planet.
Rabbi George Mordecai