Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Yetzer Hara - Friend or Foe?
To go to battle with mankind's all-time most-wanted enemy, and to
emerge victorious. No less than this was the feat of Yaakov Avinu,
who, in this week's Sidrah, encounters the Yetzer Hara himself - the
angel who challenges us to exercise our free-will to choose good, and
entices us to sin. All night they wrestled, the Yetzer Hara surely using
his most powerful arsenal of seduction, temptation and desire, but to
no avail. Towards daybreak, he was forced to admit defeat - Yaakov
had the better of him.
"Now you must let me go, as day is breaking and my time has come
to sing shirah (song) before Hashem!"
"First," said Yaakov, "bless me."
"You don't understand," said the angel, "in all my years of existence -
from the day I was created by Hashem until now - I have never once
had the opportunity to sing shirah. Now, finally my time has come -
so please let me go and offer songs of praise before my Creator!"
(Chullin 91b) In the end, Yaakov refused to release the angel until he
had blessed him.
It's hard to not find the angel's excuse somewhat suspect: For
thousands of years the yetzer hara had existed (he first appears as
the snake in the Garden of Eden), yet his one-and-only time to sing
shira just happened to coincide with his defeat at the hands of
Yaakov? Is this a matter of miraculous coincidence? (It brings to mind
the many times that - unaccountably - students seem to need to leave
the class at the precise moment that their teacher asks them to
repeat what they have just learned...)
Assuming, as it seems from the above Gemara, that an angel gets
only one chance to offer his song before Hashem, when does that
time come? We must preface that angels are the faithful delegates
and messengers of Hashem - they are given specific tasks to perform.
Logically, there seems no more appropriate time for an angel to sing
shirah than at the point when he has accomplished his mission. It is
at this point that the angel reaches the pinnacle of his existence - and
the joy and bliss of having done so allows and inspires him to offer
his one-and-only song before his Creator.
There is a common misconception that the yetzer hara is an "evil
angel" - one to be hated and despised. In fact, the opposite is true.
The purpose of the yetzer hara - which we perceive as our frail side
and our propensity to evil - is to provide us with the opportunity to
exercise free will, and choose "good" and "life" in the face of
temptation and immorality. Without temptation, the choice of good
would be axiomatic. The yetzer hara does battle with our emotions
not because he ultimately desires that we succumb, but rather so that
we strengthen our commitment to Torah by overcoming the hurdles
placed in front of us. When we conquer our desires, thereby coming
one step closer to perfection, not only do we not "foil" the yetzer
hara - we bring him joy!
The ultimate completion of the yetzer hara's mission could never be
realized until he succeeded in creating the "perfect man," an
individual so morally and spiritually robust that no temptation in the
world could possibly cause him to sin. In Yaakov Avinu, the yetzer
hara had, so to speak, met his match. After an all-night battle,
Yaakov demonstrated that he had complete and total control over his
emotions and desires. He took hold of the yetzer hara - now Yaakov
"Send me off," said the yetzer hara, "this is a time of great joy for
me, and I must go and sing shirah to Hashem. My mission has been
accomplished - I have succeeded in perfecting man!" [R' Yisrael of
Koznitz, the "Koznitzer Maggid"]
Upon reflection, this concept, says R' Yitzchak Shmelkes (the Beis
Yitzchak), can be a source of great inspiration. If - upon finding
ourselves in the throngs of temptation - we remind ourselves that the
very angel, the "yetzer hara," who is responsible for giving us our
perverse feelings and desires, actually wants us to reject his overtures
and overcome our temptation, it becomes much easier to do so.
Picture the yetzer hara watching you - cheering you on - to make use
of an opportunity to exercise free-will and choose good. Imagine,
then, if we goof - if we succumb to our desires and sin. "You fool!"
exclaims the yetzer hara, "How could you?! You totally missed the
point! I never actually intended that you should sin - I was just trying
to give you an opportunity for spiritual growth and self-perfection!"
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 29a) rules that when a beis-din (court of
Jewish law) accepts testimony regarding capital offenses, it is
necessary to first "intimidate the witnesses" in order to impress upon
them the severity of false testimony. "What," asks the Gemara (ibid.)
"do we tell the witnesses [in order to intimidate them]?"
Rav Yehudah said: We tell them the following (Mishlei/Proverbs
25:14), "Clouds and wind, but no rain - a man who takes pride in a
dishonest gift." Procuring monetary gain by testifying falsely causes
famine, so that even if clouds fill the skies and winds blow, rain will
Rava said: The witnesses can retort, "There may be a seven-year
famine - but it never enters the craftsman's door!" Our craftsmanship
will sustain us - even in times of famine.
Rather, said Rava, we tell them this (Mishlei ibid. verse 18), "A club,
a sword, and a sharp arrow - a man who bears false witness against
his fellow." False testimony causes widespread death to occur.
Rav Ashi said: The witnesses can say, "There may be a seven-year
plague - but no man dies before his time!"
Rather, Rav Ashi said, Nassan bar Mar Zutra told me, we tell them:
[Know that] false witnesses are detestable - even in the eyes of those
who hire them [to testify falsely]! Indeed, it is written [regarding
Queen Izevel, who came up with the plan to hire witnesses to testify
falsely that Navos the Yizr'eili deserved the death penalty, in order that
her husband, the wicked King Achav, could confiscate his beautiful
vineyard,] (1 M'lachim/Kings 21:10), "And let them place two corrupt
men opposite him, and let them testify [falsely] about him..." In this
verse, the perjurers are referred as "corrupt" by the very people who
Understanding that you are looked down upon and scorned by the
very people who entice you to do wrong, says Rav Ashi (and this
indeed is the Gemara's conclusion), is the ultimate deterrent. Having
a truer understanding of what the yetzer hara is all about - and how
he looks at us - is a powerful tool in overcoming the tests and
temptations of day-to-day life.
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.