Duality within: on Toldot
October 31, 2013
The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself, if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.
And God said to her: two nations are inside you; / two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb. / One shall prevail over the other; the elder, serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22-24)
On the surface this appears to be a text about Rebecca and the twins battling in her womb. But the Torah is also a map for our own spiritual development, which means that this is also a text about each of us.
Our sages teach that each person has two inclinations or urges: the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination.) This is inherent in our nature as human beings.
[Remember that, for our sages, the yetzer hara is an integral part of creation. In midrash we read that when the sages imprisoned the yetzer hara in a cage for three days, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Which is to say: without the yetzer hara, there's no generative impulse.]
But the yetzer hara can also lead us in bad directions. Sometimes when we pause to do the work of discernment, we discover that we're not acting out of a place that's elevated or useful; instead we're acting out of selfishness or fear or anger. One who makes such a discovery about themselves might offer the same existential cry that Rebecca did: "if this is so, then why am I here?" Why am I even alive in this world, if I'm not living out the best self I can be? What's the point?
But we can engage in practices which strengthen our yetzer hatov, our good inclination. We can be mindful and attentive to that within us which is driven by our bad impulse, and with our attention and energy can transform the bad into good. As it says in Psalms, "Turn bad into good." Increase your ability to take the yetzer hara which is within you, and invert or transform it into yetzer hatov.
When you do this, your yetzer hara will surrender and your yetzer hatov will emerge triumphant. And then it will be possible for you to really serve the Holy Blessed One, even with those aspects of yourself which feel linked to your yetzer hara.
(Gently adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.)
This will be the Torah study text at my shul this Shabbat after our contemplative service, and I'll bring along some questions to hopefully spark our conversation. But I think this is one which merits thinking about for more than just one morning, so I'm sharing it here too. I welcome any responses y'all have to offer.