|Sum Of His Parts
A good word about the evil inclination.
by David Holzel
Beam back with me now to one of the early episodes of the original "Star Trek" series, "The Enemy Within." Pity poor Captain Kirk -- a transporter malfunction splits him in two. Kirk No. 1 is a wild, irrational brute -- pure
|id. Kirk No. 2 is gentle and
compassionate. He is presumed the real captain, until the
crew notice he is unable to make a decision -- fateful or
otherwise -- and, in fact, is sinking into paralysis.
All ends well, of course. The transporter is patched together. And so is Captain Kirk. He emerges unified, greater than the sum of his parts, and fit enough to survive three seasons of the TV series plus a half-dozen mostly forgettable movies.
Viewed through a Jewish lens, this episode is an allegory of a man whose yetzer hara, or evil inclination, is split from his yetzer hatov, or good inclination.
Philosophically, we're told we need yetzer hara, because our struggle to overcome it characterizes the Jewish belief that people are endowed with free will.
But there is something more fundamental about our need for yetzer hara: Without it, we'd become the sniveling Captain Kirk, or a Paul McCartney who, liberated from John Lennon's dark scrutiny, is free to write "Silly Love Songs."
"If not for the evil impulse," says the midrash, "no one would build a house, marry, have children, nor engage in trade."
So maybe the evil inclination isn't so bad after all.
Far from a demonic force that needs to be destroyed, yetzer hara represents creativity, ambition and will. It is more morally neutral than its name suggests.
"Yetzer hara is not necessarily evil," says Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi in New York and author of "Being God's Partner." "It has been called the selfish inclination, and yetzer hatov the selfless piece of us."
Rabbi Steven Lebow, of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Georgia, describes yetzer hara as a person's "dark well of energy. It would be better if we understood it in the Freudian sense of the id," he says.
The trick, according to Judaism, is what you do with what you've got.
"Balance is an integral part of a Jewish lifestyle," Rabbi Salkin says. "Judaism doesn't believe in getting rid of the body, in getting rid of desire. The focus is sanctifying what you do. That's a profoundly humanistic way of looking at the world."
That's why any meal can become a mirror of a service in the ancient Temple -- compliments of a few blessings.
And that's why Judaism neither bans drinking nor encourages drinking freely. Instead, it encourages making kiddush -- the sanctification over wine.
Sexuality often is associated with yetzer hara. But sexuality is neutral, Rabbi Salkin points out. "It is sanctifiable. It includes marriage -- the holy of holies -- and it includes rape."
Others believe the dark well of yetzer hara represents a dread that we never can quite shake: our fear of death. In this view, yetzer hatov is our drive to connect with the eternal. Judaism says this is accomplished by our relation with God.
Yetzer hara is our sneaking suspicion, or out-and-out conviction, that this life is all there is. It pulls us from the holy to the corporeal. To defy death, our yetzer hara stirs us to build monuments to ourselves -- families, businesses, works of art. These, we know, will survive us. (Why else do captains of the starship Enterprise leave detailed mission logs? Why else are there reruns?)
One thing more -- if it's all a question of balance, can there be too much yetzer hatov? Yes, Rabbi Salkin says.
"Too much leads to premature saintliness. If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal."
It was Rabbi Hillel who, 2,000 years ago, set the balance between the two warring impulses: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?"
It's a lesson James T. Kirk learned early on. After he got himself together.
Yetzer hara is more