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Bill Futornick - Rosh HaShana: Perfection and Yetzer Ha Ra

09/10/2021 11:42:10 AM


Bill Futornick

Perfection and Yetzer Ha Ra

From nothing comes something. Light suffuses the darkness; stars, oceans, chrysanthemums and koalas come into being. It is all Tov, the elemental Good. The climax of creation- humans- appears, beings made in God’s image. And they are not just Tov. They are Tov Me’od. Very Tov. Vayechulu. God finishes, ceases labor, and I can visualize the satisfaction etched on God’s face. It was all so perfect. And then it all turns. Adam and Eve eat the fruit. Cain kills Abel. Things are going wrong. Suddenly the perfect world is not so perfect. 

And Genesis 6. The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but RA - translated as evil - all the time. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” 

The rains come; the flood destroys everything except Noah and his family, who ride out the storm with a scant selection of other beings. 

A few months ago, we were studying this story in our Wednesday adult learning class. And it came up: the people who were made in God’s image are all evil. If we are created in the image of God, what does that say about God? If we are to emulate God, the destroyer, what does that say about what we are expected to do? 

Soon, Noah and his family emerge from the Ark and Noah makes an offering. Upon smelling the pleasing odor, the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are RA- evil- from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. 

What about perfection? Maybe God isn’t so perfect.  What if God was indeed perfect, even with all of the flaws we were noticing. What if the problem was with our definition of the very word “perfect”? What if Perfection included failures, messing up, and taking correctives. God seems to learn as things go wrong. What if God is fighting his yetzer ha-ra?

In the rabbinic mind, this is yetzer ra, the propensity toward Ra. our translation of Ra being evil does not do justice to the concept. Ra is not simply evil in a binary world of Tov and Ra. It is that which propels us forward, our passion, our striving. The Rabbis talk about the need to harness and channel Ra in a striking Midrash: 

They observed a fast for three days and three nights, and God delivered the evil inclination to them. 

They said: What should we do to kill it? They decided to throw it into a container made of lead and seal the opening with lead, since lead absorbs sound. Zechariah the prophet said to them: See and understand that if you kill this evil inclination the world will be destroyed because as a result there will also no longer be any desire to procreate. 

They followed his warning, and instead of killing the evil inclination they imprisoned it for three days. At that time, people searched for a fresh egg throughout all of Eretz Yisrael and could not find one. Since the inclination to reproduce was quashed, the chickens stopped laying eggs. They said: What should we do? If we kill it, the world will be destroyed. What did they do? They gouged out its eyes, effectively limiting its power, and set it free. 

Every morning, we say blessings expressing our gratitude for being able to start our day. At the end of those blessings is a plea for the yetzer ha-ra not to control us. We are not to destroy yetzer ha-ra, but to channel it. To control our passions, our inner drive. Ramban teaches that tov me-od, very good, that describes the creation of humans is the yetzer ha-ra. What pushes people to be great is that we have strong drives toward love, toward problem solving, toward fighting for what is just. But unchecked, ra can be incredibly destructive. 

At the end of the tractate of Sukkah, as in many talmudic tractates, the Rabbis give us teachings and maxims that are more than just keeping laws. 

Sukka 52a

Abaye said: And the Yetzer Ha-ra  provokes Torah scholars more than it provokes everyone else. He once heard a certain man say to a certain woman: Let us rise early and go on the road. Upon hearing this, Abaye said to himself: I will go and accompany them and prevent them from violating the prohibition that they certainly intend to violate.

He went after them for a distance of three parasangs (about 10 miles!) in a marsh among the reeds, while they walked on the road, and they did not engage in any wrongful activity. That is a lot of commitment! When they were taking leave of each other, he heard that they were saying: We traveled a long distance together, and the company was pleasant company.

Nothing happened!

אֲמַר אַבָּיֵי: אִי מַאן דְּסָנֵי לִי הֲוָה, לָא הֲוָה מָצֵי לְאוֹקוֹמֵי נַפְשֵׁיהּ. אֲזַל תְּלָא נַפְשֵׁיהּ בְּעִיבּוּרָא דְּדָשָׁא וּמִצְטַעֵר. אֲתָא הָהוּא סָבָא, תְּנָא לֵיהּ: כׇּל הַגָּדוֹל מֵחֲבֵירוֹ — יִצְרוֹ גָּדוֹל הֵימֶנּוּ. Abaye said: In that situation, if instead of that man it had been one whom I hate, a euphemism for himself, he would not have been able to restrain himself from sinning. After becoming aware of so great a shortcoming he went and leaned against the doorpost, thinking and feeling regret. 

Abaye didn’t even know these people, but he judged them harshly. And that harsh judgment of others was based on his harsh judgment of himself. Presuming that others’ thoughts/behaviors match yours. Expectations that they will respond as you would have. prejudging, not giving people space to act/talk. Don’t look at someone and assume you know what they’re doing or thinking or what their motivations are without listening. Genesis 8- man’s devisings are always evil. God will never again destroy the world. Have to learn how to deal with things. If we are made in god’s image, does god want us to destroy as He did. 

At the end of They point out that this period is a time when we look back and look forward. We address our imperfections, and we set our plan toward how we can better control our yetzer ha-ra. The Rabbis also teach us that this is a process we engage in every day, not just on Yom Kippur. 

He’s depressed by his terrible yetzer ra.

Abaye story is in the context of saying that torah scholars have a greater yetzer hara. It is not that they have more yetzer ra; it’s that they are more in touch. In discussing this with someone I trust, who has a unique perspective, he said: The more they are a scholar of their own psychology, the more their awareness leads them to see their flaws. 

The story ends when A certain Elder came and taught him: Anyone who is greater than another, his evil inclination is greater than his. Therefore, Abaye should not feel regret, as his realization is a consequence of his self-awareness. Wise and loving person says it’s all part of the journey.

Ruth Shapiro used to tell me that whenever she saw kids being so hard on themselves, she would reassure them. Only God is perfect. The message of course was, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” It takes a lot of pressure off. It lets us forgive our mistakes. We tend to think that imperfection is not making mistakes. And when we don’t make those mistakes, we are much closer to perfection.

Last week we talked about perfection in our Judaism at Home class, and many described perfect as a negative: stagnant, nowhere to go, nothing to strive for, the end of the line. God commands us to be holy at Sinai- God never asks us to be perfect- (Rhonna Rogol)

May this be a year of holiness, may this be a year of perfection with all the flaws that come with it. May it be a shana tova.

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyyar 5782