The Evil Inclination

There are numerous texts about the Yetzer HaRa (the Evil Inclination, aka "Satan") in the Jewish Talmud. The Jewish sages were in no way monolithic in their understanding of the source of our human capacity to do evil. They all agreed that humans are born with it. Here are a number of selections which present proof texts for this:

The following curt statement by Reish Lakish is the most controversial understanding of the Evil Inclination:

Baba Batra 16a:

R. Simeon ben Lakish said: Satan, impulse to evil, and angel of death: all three are the same thing.

So how persuasive is the Evil Inclination?

Brachot 61b:

It has been taught: R. Jose HaGalili says, The righteous are swayed by their good inclination, as it says, My heart is slain within me.

The wicked are swayed by their evil inclination, as it says, Transgression speaks to the wicked, I believe, there is no fear of God before his eyes.

Average people are swayed by both inclinations, as it says, Because He stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from them that judge his soul.

Raba said: People such as we are of the average.

Said Abaye to him: The Master gives no one a chance to live!

Raba further said: The world was created only for either the totally wicked or the totally righteous.

Raba said: Let a man know concerning himself whether he is completely righteous or not!

Three people never had any problem with the Evil Inclination:

Baba Batra 17a

Three there were over whom the evil inclination had no dominion: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...

For the rest of us, however, who are the most susceptible to the wiles of the Evil Inclination? SCHOLARS!

Sukkah 52b

Abaye explained, Against scholars more than against anyone;

as was the case when Abaye heard a certain man saying to a woman, ‘Let us arise now and go on our way.'

‘I will', said Abaye, ‘follow them in order to keep them away from transgression' and he followed them for three parasangs across the meadows.

When they parted company he heard them say, ‘Our company is pleasant, the way is long.'

‘If it were I,' said Abaye, ‘I could not have restrained myself,' and so he went and leaned in deep anguish against a doorpost, when a certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man, the greater his Evil Inclination.

Even when we mourn, we're not safe from the Evil Inclination's influence:

Chagigah 16a

For behold R. Elai the elder said: If a man sees that his [evil] inclination is prevailing upon him, let him go to a place where he is not known, and put on black garments, and wrap himself up in black garments, and let him do what his heart desires;

but let him not profane the Name of Heaven publicly!

R. Judah son of R. Nahmani, the speaker of Resh Lakish expounded: What is the meaning of the verse: Trust not in a friend, put not confidence in a familiar friend.

If the evil inclination says to you: Sin and the Holy One, blessed be He, will pardon, believe it not, for it is said: ‘Trust not in a friend,' and ‘friend' [Rea'] means none other than one's evil inclination, for it is said: For the inclination of man's heart is evil [Ra']...

Oy! The Evil Inclination is so bad that it's one of the things God regrets creating:

Sukkah 52b

R. Hana b. Abba stated: It was said at the schoolhouse, There are four things of which the Holy One, blessed be He, regrets that He had created them, and they are the following: Exile, the Chaldeans, the Ishmaelites and Evil Inclination.

‘The Exile', since it is written, Now, therefore, what do I here, says Adonai, seeing that My people is taken away for nothing; (Isaiah 52:5)

‘the Chaldeans', since it is written, Behold the land of the Chaldeans; this is the people that was not." (Isaiah 23:13)

‘the Ishmaelites', since it is written, The tents of the robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure since God brought them with His hand." (Job 12)

‘the Evil Inclination', since it is written, [And I will gather her that is driven away] and her that I have afflicted.(Micah 4:6)

Is there no hope against the Evil Inclination? Of course there is!

Sukkah 52b:

The school of R. Ishmael taught, If this repulsive wretch meets you, drag him to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study.

Despite the power of the Evil Inclination, we are still held responsible; we can beat it. The following selection deals with Psalm 4:5: Tremble and sin not; Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Sela."

Brachot 5a:

R. Levi b. Hama says in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: A man should always incite the good impulse to fight against the evil impulse.

For it is written: Tremble and sin not.

If he subdues it, well and good.

If not, let him study the Torah. For it is written: ‘Commune with your own heart.'

If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him recite the Shema'.

For it is written: ‘Upon your bed.'

If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the day of death. For it is written: ‘And be still, Selah.'

Avot D'Rabbi Natan 16:

"The impulse of man's heart was evil from the time he was expelled from his mother's womb." (Gen. 8:21).

If you argue: "Is it not the Holy One Himself who created the impulse to evil, of which it is written, 'The impulse of man's heart was evil from the time he was expelled from his mother's womb?' Who then can possibly make it good?"

the Holy One replies, "You are the one who makes the impulse to evil stay evil.

How? When you were a child, you did not sin. Only when you grew up, you began to sin."

If you argue: "But no man can guard himself against it!"

the Holy One replies, "How many things in the world are even less bearable and more bitter than the impulse to evil, yet you manage to sweeten them.

Nothing is more bitter than the lupine, and yet, in order to sweeten it, you carefully boil it in water seven times, until it becomes sweet.

Now, if you sweeten for your need bitter things that I alone created, all the greater is your responsibility for the impulse to evil, which was placed under your control."

Baba Batra 16a

"Although you know that I am not wicked, and there is none that can deliver out of your hand."

Raba said: Job sought to exculpate the whole world.

He said: Sovereign of the Universe, You have created the ox with cloven hoofs and you have created the ass with whole hoofs;

you have created Paradise and you have created Gehinnom:

you have created righteous men and you have created wicked men, and who can prevent you?

His companions answered him: Yea, you do away with fear and restrain devotion before God.

If God created the evil inclination, He also created the Torah as its antidote.

Baba Metzia 32b

Come and hear: If a friend requires unloading, and an enemy loading, one's [first] obligation is towards his enemy, in order to subdue his evil inclinations.

Now if you should think that [relieving the suffering of an animal is Biblically [enjoined], [surely] the other is preferable!

Even so, [the motive] ‘in order to subdue his evil inclination' is more compelling.

The most extraordinary story about a sage overcoming his Evil Inclination is not found in the Talmud: it's from a midrash collection called the Tanchuma. However, because of its remarkable imagery, I'm including it here.

A story of Matia ben Heresh: He was rich and feared Heaven and, like R. Meir, his teacher, sat all his days in the house of study occupying himself with Torah.

Now, the splendor of his countenance shone like the radiance of the sun, and the beauty of his features resembled that of the ministering angels. It was said of him that never in his life had he raised his eyes upon a woman.

Once, Satan passed by and, seeing him, was overcome with envy as he said: Is it possible that there is a righteous man entirely without sin in the world? At once he went up to the height above, stood before the Holy One, and said, "Master of the universe, Matia ben Heresh:what sort of man is he in Your sight?"

God: "He is utterly righteous."

Satan: "Give me permission, and I will test him."

God: "You will not prevail over him."

Satan: "Nevertheless!"

So God gave him permission.

Satan went and found R. Matia seated and occupied with Torah. So he appeared to him in the guise of a beautiful woman, the like of which there had not been in the world since the days of Naamah, Tubal-Cain's sister, on account of whom ministering angels went astray.

Satan stood in front of R. Matia, who, upon seeing him, turned his back to him.

Satan went around and again stood in front of R. Matia. When R. Matia turned his face to still another direction, Satan was once more in front of him.

When R. Matia saw that Satan [in the woman's guise] turned up on all sides, he said to himself: I fear that the impulse to evil will gain mastery over me and cause me to sin.

What did that righteous man do then?

He summoned one of his disciples, who acted as his attendant, and said to him: My son, go and bring me fire and nails.

After he brought them, R. Matia passed the nails through the fire, then plunged them into his own eyes.

When Satan saw this, he was shaken, all but knocked out, and left R. Matia.

In that instant, the Holy One summoned Raphael, prince of healings, and said to him, "Go and heal the eyes of Matia ben Heresh."

When Raphael came and stood before him, Matia asked, "Who are you?"

Raphael answered, "I am the angel Raphael, whom the Holy One had sent to heal your eyes."

Matia: "Let me be. What happened has happened."

Raphael returned to the Holy One and reported to Him, "Master of the universe, thus-and-thus did Matia ben Heresh answer me."

The Holy One said, "Go and tell him: From this day and henceforth, fear not. I guarantee you in this matter that, throughout your days, the impulse to evil will have no sway over you."

When Matia ben Heresh heard God's guarantee from the angel, he was willing to accept the angel's healing and was healed.

The Evil Inclination and the Jewish sages, continued...