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October 31, 2019 by

So You Have a Yetzer HaRa! A Training Guide for Primitive Breeds

by Jessica Jacobs

When writing about the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination,” rabbis have grappled with the exalted algebra that if God created everything, then God must have also created this inclination. Thus, even this “evil” part of us must have some essence of the divine. Through Midrash and Mishnah (the oral tradition of Jewish law and commentaries on Jewish foundational texts), rabbis traded advice on the best techniques for dealing with the yetzer hara, which have been boiled down to this convenient training guide—because who doesn’t need a little help when attempting to housebreak this pesky propensity?

Your yetzer hara is both the seed of your physical needs and desires—those urges that drive you toward pleasure and productivity—and the MiracleGro that can get those urges sprouting like kudzu, climbing, coiling, and overtaking every other part of your life, smothering everything it covers.

But as it says in the Talmud (that training guide of all training guides), how you respond to your yetzer hara is up to you: “At first, the yetzer hara—the evil inclination—is called a ‘wayfarer’, then a ‘guest’, then finally ‘master’.” Though your yetzer hara may be cute as a puppy when young, you must assert yourself early on as pack leader. A puppy who knows it can win against its human will become a dangerous dog, an owner of its owner.

So, let’s begin with the basics: Primitive breeds are the bridge between the domesticated pets curled obediently at your feet and their wild ancestors. According to the enthusiasts at primitivedogs.com, “With such evident connections to their wild relatives–wolves––it is no wonder these dogs kept some of their ‘wild’ habits, such as strong prey drive, need for roaming and exploring, resourcefulness.” Found on every continent, “their several-millennia-long evolution has often been tied to human migrations.” Your yetzer hara is one such primitive breed: intelligent, independent, potentially very dominant, and bound to you from the start. Where we go, it goes, like a goth Ruth to your naive Naomi.

A little historical context: Domesticated breeds like yetzer hatov—the good inclination—were bred to strip away a willful nature, resulting in what we think of today as a friendly companion breed, the Golden Retriever of inclinations.

So why have a yetzer hara?

While a yetzer hatov is good for the whole family, it’s worthless for pursuing game or keeping in line all you’ve worked so hard to acquire. If it were your only inclination, it would just be the two of you, lying in a field, watching clouds rorshach across the sky.

(I know, I know—that doesn’t sound so bad. But as a midrash teaches, long ago the sages captured the yetzer hara and locked it away, thinking this would solve all the world’s problems. Yet in the three days it was caged, they found no one had left their bed for work, no one had made love, and though they searched every nest in every henhouse in all the land they could not find even a single fresh egg. So, they let it go free. Sure, a yetzer hara can tear your home apart, but that restless beast will urge you to your feet, saving you from a shiftless life of dreaming without doing.)

As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto wrote in Derech Hashem (The Way of God), “Man is the creature created for the purpose of being drawn close to God. He is placed between perfection and deficiency, with the power to earn perfection. Man must earn this perfection, however, through his own free will… Man’s inclinations are therefore balanced between good (Yetzer HaTov) and evil (Yetzer HaRa), and he is not compelled toward either of them. He has the power of choice and is able to choose either side knowingly and willingly….”

So, please note that though these primitive and domestic breeds can seem like different species, they share a common lineage. With your guidance, they can make ideal companions for each other, balancing the other’s proclivities.

But let’s get back to your yetzer hara…

As God told Cain before he’d spilled a single drop of his brother’s blood, “Where you do right, there is uplift, but where you do not, sin crouches at your door; it longs for you, but you can rule over it.” Can you hear it out there, whining softly, ready for your command? Make sure you know your will before you speak. Your yetzer hara is expert at seeing past your words to read and obey contradictory body language.

Fun fact: Instead of that old joke about a master growing to look like her pet, your yetzer hara will grow to look like you! It will sniff out your distinctive fears and desires and mirror back to you whichever ones are most challenging. Try to think of it as an opportunity for growth (after all, you can’t give it back).

To make it a good companion and guardian, you must ensure your yetzer hara is submissive to you and your flock. If this isn’t ingrained, it can become the predator it’s meant to protect against.

Caging or fencing it will not help. Your yetzer hara is a Houdini of the highest order. Barriers will only provoke it.

Starving it will not help. Hunger will only make it stronger. And as it breaks free to feast, it may well devour you along the way.

And as Rabbi David E. Ostrich writes, “Perhaps Yetzer Tov is better described as the altruistic inclination—that part of us that wants to give and help. And, perhaps Yetzer HaRa is better described as the assertive or self-protective inclination—that part of us which we need to make sure we take care of ourselves.” The secret is just not taking such good care of yourself and your yetzer hara that you forget to care for others (down that path lies overly primped poodles in baby carriages).

The best way to train it is by befriending your inclination, seeking to understand it, and creating a relationship of shared respect and well-set boundaries. Helping your yetzer hara align its interests with yours will channel its considerable energy toward a mutual good.

In conclusion, your yetzer hara is a working breed most happy when it has a job to do.

For as Chassidic master and master trainer of primitive breeds Eliezer of Dzikov once asked as a child, “What can I do if my yetzer hara tries to lead me astray?”

“Let your yetzer hara train you in how to train it,” his father replied. “Watch how faithfully it pursues its desires.”

 

Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, published by Four Way Books in March 2019. My debut collection, Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. My essays have appeared in publications including Guernica, The Iowa Review, The Oxford American, and wESPN.com. Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal, I live in Asheville, NC, and am at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash.