The Two Forces
What are you learning from?
When you think of the angels on the shoulder, what representation do you picture immediately? My mind goes to Homer Simpson. Many minds will picture some other animated form of this image. From a young age, we are primed to think of these opposing voices, one for good and one for evil. Heed the former. Spurn the latter.
In Judaism, the closest analog to this is the yetzer ha’tov and the yetzer ha’ra, the good and evil inclinations. They are not angels but rather inner forces that each person has. One cannot rid themselves of the evil one nor can only solely listen to the good one. They are both there in equal measure and we all have to process through how we live with them.
In the dichotomous world in which we live, the evil inclination is something to be feared and steered clear of. I would like to offer an alternative path in this piece. In the beginning of the weekly portion the Jewish people read tomorrow, Toldot, we learn of the challenging pregnancy of Rebecca, one of the matriarchs of the Jewish people.
When the Torah details her pregnancy, it says the following1:
וַיִּתְרֹֽצְצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה׃
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD.
The plain sense of this text is obvious. She is having pain in her pregnancy, wonders existentially why this is happening to her, and seeks out God. As we have discussed in other posts, the masters of the Chassidic tradition want to take the plain meaning and transform it into something more metaphorical and accessible for all.
Here we come then to the reading of this text from the Degel Machane Efrayim2 who reads this text not as Rebecca’s pregnancy but as an allegory for the two aforementioned forces, yetzer ha’tov and yetzer ha’ra. In his words:
“It is the task of every person to turn the evil inclination into the positive inclination. This happens through finding Godliness even in the evil inclination. As we learn in Ethics of Our Ancestors 4:1, “who is wise? The one who learns from all. As the great Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Pollonye said, even learning from the yetzer ha’ra.”
His intent here is to read these two quarreling forces as the two evil inclinations. A person will face this tension in life and wonder, “why me?” After having that moment of crisis, they should then undertake a process of investigation into themselves. Study the inclinations. Dive deeply within them. Within this reading, this process helps a person understand their inclinations. In understanding them, one can recalibrate the evil inclination into something positive. But, and this is the key part, only if they are willing to learn from the evil inclination.
It is so counter how we normally think of this voice and its manifestations. That thing that lurks within, that force that draws us away from godliness and goodness is supposed to be avoided at all costs. What he is saying here is the opposite. It is only when we approach it with the curiosity of wanting to learn from it that we can truly become wise.
In this cycle of reading the Torah, I am envisioning the evil impulse as the mistakes that we make in either the personal or professional sphere. Many folks see their mistakes in the past and want to leave them there. We failed. It’s painful. Let’s move forward. That to me though is representative of this false dichotomy. That is the evil impulse and we want to stay away.
Think about what potential there is in getting to know those mistakes. How much could you learn about yourself? How much could your professional life grow? What kind of culture could you create where that evil impulse is not something to be spurned but something to be transformed?
That is what happens when we get curious about that force. I have existed in spaces in most of my professional life where it seems perfection is paramount. I try very hard not to strive for perfection. When that is the goal, then missteps become haunting reminders. Lord knows I have plenty. When learning is the goal, then each mistake becomes an opportunity to gain wisdom. The forces are always there. How we decide to learn from is up to us. Choose wisely.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!
Rabbi Moshe Chayim Ephraim of Sudilkov-18th Century Poland