Struggling with my yetzer
December 03, 2008
My yetzer ha-ra doesn't want me to daven shacharit.
Okay, I don't really imagine that I have a personified evil (or chaotic) impulse, perched on my shoulder and whispering bitchy nothings in my ear. But there is definitely something in me that resists doing the things I know will make me more grounded.
Like regular prayer. I set my alarm. I wake up on time. I putter around and make myself a cup of tea. And as the appointed hour for davenen draws near, my yetzer ha-ra starts throwing excuses at me, reasons why I can't possibly daven this morning.
I have too much to do. There are things I haven't taken care of. Bills and dishes. Plus there's that paper that's going to be due next week, right after I get back from the Rabbis for Human Rights conference, which I should really be working on now! Besides, I'm distracted. I won't have good focus. (See above, re: bills and dishes and paper deadlines. ) I can pray tomorrow when I'm more in the mood. God won't really mind if I miss a day; God knows where I'm at, God understands.
Well, of course God understands. But that's not remotely the point, is it? Prayer primes the pump of gratitude, and awareness, and praise. Prayer keeps my spiritual muscles stretched and ready. And, like writing, prayer shouldn't be a luxury to be engaged in when I happen to feel so moved; it's a practice which sustains itself and sustains me. But I have to overcome inertia and do it.
I wonder sometimes whether the friend who I meet for tele-davenen one morning a week has any idea what a mitzvah he's doing. I don't want to imagine him alone on the other end of the conference call line, listening to the dreadful hold music with which FreeConferenceCall.com graces its customers, so I take a deep breath and unfold my tallit.
By the time I'm starting to wind my tefillin around my arm, my yetzer ha-ra has thrown up its metaphorical hands and gone to sulk in the corner. And my yetzer ha-tov is patting me on the back as the folds of my tallit embrace me.
How else does my yetzer ha-ra trip me up? By telling me there's nothing I can do, so I might as well not try. By reminding me of all the things which drive me crazy at this time of year, instead of all the things which bring me joy. The yetzer ha-ra is manifest in monkey-mind's perennial chatter.
But the yetzer ha-tov is always there too: in appreciation of the muted mountains, in the cup of good tea I make for myself as a mundane treat, in the act of buckling down to work on the paper so it won't be stressing me out anymore. I just have to remember to listen.
Paradoxically, the rabbis saw the yetzer ha-ra as a necessary, even positive, force. They point out that on the first five days of creation God saw that creation was good, while on the sixth day "God saw all that God had created, and behold, it was very good" (Bereshit 1:31, emphasis mine.) One midrash reads "very good" as a reference to the yetzer ha-ra, "for without it, one would not build a house, marry, beget children, or engage in business." (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7) The yetzer ha-ra trips us up, but it also drives us.
In the Gemara (Brakhot 54a) we read that the commandment to "love Adonai your God with your whole heart (b'khol levavkha)" (Devarim 6:5) refers to "your two impulses: the good impulse and the evil impulse." What a radical idea: we're supposed to love God (whatever we understand that phrase to mean) with all of ourselves. Not just the "good" side.
They're a matched set, the good impulse and the bad impulse, the part of me that aspires to be my best self and the part of me that wallows in my worst inclinations. The part of me that lives up to my expectations and the part of me that lives down to them. I need to bring all of me to everything that I do.