Tuesday, December 22, 2009

יצר הרע‎ - The Darkness Within

Maybe it is the darkest day that makes me think of dark things.

There is this simmering, sometimes overpowering sense that the world just is not a good place; and that humanity is fundamentally bad/evil.

After all, look at what we have done to each other and our planet. Look at the casual indifference with which we treat each other every day. What can be done? How can we think about humanity and our predicament in new ways?

One way: Normative Judaism does not view people as inherently good or evil. We are neither. We are beings capable of angelic good or demonic evil. Most of us dwell in shades between.

יצר הרע‎‎, Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, is a key concept in Judaism's grappling with human impulses, and differs from conventional ideas about evil. Yetzer Hara is evil; it is selfishness, greed, lust, all the common notions of badness or evil that we can imagine. But יצר הרע‎ is necessary; without it, much of the positive work in the world would not get done. If a person did not seek to profit for him or herself, no food would be grown. There would be no trade. It would be a war of all against all if there was not a kernel of evil in each of us.

So what to do when the feeling, the inner sensation, is overwhelming?

Well, again that is one of the positive elements of Judaism. Traditionally, you can feel or think anything you like, even think the most atrocious things, about yourself, other people, even God, but as long as you don't act upon them, and act for the good, that is fine. It is practical intention that matters, not internal intent.

And one leads to the other. The more we act good, hopefully the more we feel good. Action and intent dovetail and become one.

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