Everyone has inclinations. In Chassidut two broad categories are discussed: The good inclination (yetzer tov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). Within the yetzer hara is an array of ‘sub-sections’ called “tie-vahs” or personal desires. They are too numerous to mention but include arrogance, money, foods, fast cars and beautiful women to mention a few. For the purposes of this article I’ll limit the discussion to good and evil inclinations.
These “yetzers” are active within every individual all the time. That is to say every decision or choice made comes under the influence of these inclinations. The yetzers are the fundamental life drives. There are similar dynamics described in other systems besides chassidic Judaism such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Native American cultures. The latter refers to two dogs, one white and one black, within that are constantly battling for dominance. Which one wins at any given time depends on who’s being fed. The white dog, representing good, presumably wins when he’s fed while the reverse is also true.
This is similarly described in Jewish tradition with further aspects. The issues of “good and evil” are higly charged in conventional society, since they are often considered relative to a given situation or culture. Without tackling the whole issue of “moral relativism” and secular society I will proceed by sidestepping it entirely. Suffice it to say, good is good but evil is not necessarily negative in this context.
The nature of the yetzer hara is physicality, natural and earthly, while the yetzer tov is “spiritual, transcendent and G-dly.” These distinctions are very important and deserve volumes to even attempt to explain them properly so I apologize in advance on the brevity of these remarks, but I will try to provide a basic conceptual framework for purposes of relating them to psychiatry and the individual’s life.
The yetzer hara, being the instrument of the physical body, strives for the satisfaction of physical desires only limited by bodily capacity. So, while supplying the ‘inclination’ to eat or drink will seek fulfillment without prudence or concern for health or dietary restraint. The same is true for all the bodily pleasures. Without it we might just well starve or become extinct so it certainly has it’s purpose and function.
The yetzer tov, on the other hand, is a kind of executive function to guide and channel the yetzer hara in a sustained and constructive fashion. It is the operational force to curb appetites and focus more primary drives.
The operational questions here are: “How do you live your life and make decisions with the good inclination?” & “When a decision arises how do you decide which way to go?”
A general guide for behavior and decision making for one wishing to free oneself from deterministic material influences is fairly simple. This is to say simple, not necessarily easy. When one realizes there is a decision to be made, based on one’s ability to exercise free will through thought or action, there are basic options. Let’s use the simple decision to get out of bed in the morning. Ultimately everyone must grapple with this decision although most of the time it is automatic and requires no choice. But, when we break from our routine or have slipped into emotional distress we may feel conflict about leaving our bed and starting our day. The comfort, safety and security of the bed beckons us to remain in the most persuasive way. Facing the day seems an inordinate burden, a daunting task or perilous challenge. Many will say, “I just couldn’t get out of bed.” If one has power of physical movement and basic muscular control this statement is simply untrue. Yet here is an example of the struggle of the yetzers in the nutshell.
The yetzer hara, clever and persuasive as it is, wants the physical comfort above all else and automatically disregards the necessities and responsibilities of the day thereby eliminating the potential for fulfillment and growth. In other words, the yetzer hara characteristically presents itself as the easy, automatic desire. We experience this as our immediate wish, yet with brief contemplation know we will ultimately feel worse for having followed its path.
On the other hand, the yetzer tov presents itself to us as the choice we would prefer to avoid because it seems more difficult while with an honest appraisal must admit we will feel better once we venture forward toward its basic goals. The nature of the inclination gives us an indicator and helps us to consciously direct ourselves toward lasting self-fulfillment.
If we come to a point of conscious decision we should try and simplify it. Even though most of life’s decisions seem often complicated they can be broken down into two possibilities: the easy way and the hard way. The advise of the sages is simple: “Take the hard way.” In other words, do that thing you know will benefit you in the long run although it seems to require greater effort. Sometimes yielding to urges feels right. You may feel you have no control and get definite immediate pleasure out of giving in to an inclination. Know if you do so you are handing over your life force to the evil inclination and strengthening it’s grasp on your destiny.
How does this work? Why should giving in to desires or inclinations make any difference? We shouldn’t assume the goal is to behave like a robot or automaton without emotions, desires or passions. There is plenty of room for feeling. In fact it is inevitable and human. The idea is generally that mental health is a function of a balanced and conscious approach to living. There are times emotions are the deciding factor in the moment. We’ve all been swept away with love and affection, inspired by music or beauty, tickled with joy or humor or slipped into melancholy. Taking charge of day to day and moment to moment decisions is the basis of ‘free will.” This is the tool G-d gave us to navigate through all of life’s challenges. While emotions plays an important role in living a full life they should not be the ultimate guide. When we take a dog for a walk we take control of the leash to avoid being led into stream or into the street. Allowing our emotions to control our decisions is like putting the dog collar around our own neck and giving the leash to the dog to lead us where it will.
There are some other aspects of the “yetzers” that can further deepen our understanding of mental health and self-mastery. In forming opinions and coming to conclusions we find the yetzer hora and yetzer tov at work. It is important to recognize which is operating at any given time. This is especially true in the social sphere and relationships because often discord comes about as a result of our opinions and beliefs. Since no one is perfect the conclusions we arrive at can be based on false or partially true beliefs. Admittedly this is a little less obvious than the prior discussion on emotional urges.
To expand on the earlier explanations of the yetzer hora let’s consider the idea of physicality. Opposed to the spiritual world, the physical or material world is essentiallly limited. To take this to the extreme it’s all about limitation. The physical body experiences a limited existence animated and alive. All of human and material life is limited by boundaries of time and space. As soon as we are born we begin heading toward the grave. The most limiting aspect of the body is the cessation of life and being placed in a coffin in the ground. As powerful and vital as it seems, this is the projectory of the of life force we call the yetzer hora. So while the yetzer hora moves toward separation, the yetzer tov drives toward connectivity and interconnectivity. It is fluid and flowing without regard for division or completion. When we reach inflexible judgements or conclusions we are operating under the influence of the yetzer hora. These rigid positions or attitudes are the hallmark of impaired mental health. The ability to yield or compromise, to seek positive and mutually satisfying commitments that can adjust to change or stress highlight the yetzer tov in action.
This brief article on the concept of the yetzers hora and tov barely scatches the surface of an infinitly profound dynamic where Chassidic Judaism and practical mental health principles seems to naturally merge in the fascinating river of life.
Gershon Freedman, M.D.