Do You Know Where Your Yetzer Ha'Tov Is?

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer

We have a problem. This problem struck me the other day when I heard a distinguished Rav delivering Mussar to his congregation. The congregants have heard this particular message before, they will hear it again, and they recognize the truth that underlies the Rav's plaint. Yet I am sure the Rav and the congregants both know that this is a never-ending, ongoing, ritual. The problem will remain. The derashos will be reiterated. Olam k'minhago noheig. (1) What is going on here?

Let us tackle the issue on the basis of a story that strikes me as a very powerful metaphor for this problem that we face.

Many readers are doubtlessly familiar with the 19th century children's story "Pinocchio." Let me summarize the tale (taking some liberties).

Pinocchio is a wooden puppet, or marionette, created by the woodcarver Geppetto. Pinocchio is "alive" - walks, talks, engages in "human" behavior - but is not a human being. Marionettes are generally controlled by strings. Pinocchio has no strings attached - externally - but the point of the tale is that there are internal strings.

Geppetto's ardent desire is to see Pinocchio become a human, and Pinocchio is kind of interested in this pursuit as well. Pinocchio is granted a conscience, Jiminy Cricket, who tells Pinocchio what the "right" thing is to do. The adventures that form the bulk of the plot test Pinocchio with temptations and compromising situations. Ultimately, Pinocchio's altruistic side vanquishes his inclinations towards indulgence and amoral activity. He is then granted true humanity, becoming a son to Geppetto. Along the way, Pinocchio was endowed with an interesting trait: When he lied, his nose would grow, as if the wood of which he was carved was alive. When he resumed telling the truth, his nose returned to its original state. Ad kan ha'nogei'ah l'inyaneinu.

Something about the story suddenly struck me the other day: It is a very powerful metaphor for the problem captured by the episode of the Rav and the congregation. The problem is this: We often externalize our "conscience." Why is this a problem? Because then, the battle between our conscience and our drives takes place outside our selves.

Let me explain: We Torah-true Jews have a common perception of what is "good" and "holy." We possess, however, great desires, drives and temptations.

Chazal tell us that we are born with our yetzer ho'ra; but we acquire our yetzer ha'tov only at the age of bar or bas mitzva. Our conscience - our yetzer ha'tov - begins work late and comes from outside of us. In the meantime, we can identify internally with our drives and our own agendas - our yetzer ho'ra.

At that point - and often beyond - we are, in essence, stuck in the mode that we (well, at least some of us) experienced in our school days: There is a system that we know, in some abstract way, is "good." We, however, test the system, bend the rules, and exploit its weaknesses (a la the "naval b'reshus ha'Torah"). All too often we adhere to the system as minimally as possible so as to not be expelled, suspended or otherwise punished, scraping by and passing to get "through."

As we progress through life, many phenomena may become parts of our externalized conscience. In the case of the Rav and the congregation, the Rav remains his congregation's external conscience. Messages of ritual - or of attire - that are not internalized may comprise an external conscience, or even a mere societal affiliation. The Mekkuballim call this an Or Makkif - an enveloping light that does little to affect the internal state of the soul. The yetzer ha'tov does not become an Or Pnimi - an internal illumination. (2)

With a conscience that is outside and distinct, we can maintain a superficial identification with a good and holy system, yet simultaneously do as we please - as long as the system doesn't "catch up" with us and castigate us. We are much like a fellow who will speed as long as he sees no policeman. True, we may feel somewhat guilty over our pleasures, but as Chazal note at the end of Chagigah, guilt does not help very much in restraining us from negative activities. (3)

Internalizing the conscience - bringing the extrinsic Jiminy Cricket into one's inner essence - is the process of becoming fully "human."

While it would be great to emerge victorious over our yetzer ho'ra, the reality is that most of us must battle our yetzer. If my yetzer ha'tov is still a Jiminy Cricket, the battle is between my yetzer ha'tov and me. What if, however, my yetzer ha'tov is no longer outside of me, but inside me? If I have internalized my conscience, it is part of me, and it is ever present in my consideration.

We may equate this stage with maturity. (4) In Pinocchio, it is equated with humanity. Pinocchio is no longer a puppet to be manipulated by "strings" - he is a "free" human being. "Ein lecha Ben Chorin elah me she'oseik ba'Torah." (5) I am no longer my subjective agenda struggling to find the weaknesses I can exploit in the system. I have a component within myself that weighs matters objectively - and I need to make decisions. This of course, restricts my "fun." A 19 or 20-year-old may express his resistance to maturity thus: "Eventually, when I am 21 or 22 and get married, I will lead a full Torah life - now I'm young, I want to enjoy myself." (6) The danger in this perspective is fairly obvious. An external conscience is a terrible nuisance. Since it impinges on my lifestyle, I seek to drown it out - at first, perhaps, with behavior that distracts me from its inconvenient reproaches. Matters then may deteriorate. In the original fairytale: Pinocchio attempts to squash that annoying talking cricket. "Ha'Omer echtoh v'ashuv ein mapikin b'yado la'asos teshuva." (7)

What is the conscience that we seek to internalize? Let us respond to this question by continuing our mashal. Pinocchio faced many temptations. Sheker, however, had the most immediate and dramatic effect: It provoked an immediate warning sign - the growing nose.

Reb Yisroel Salanter zt"l (8) says that yetzer ha'tov is often a synonym for the intellect ("seichel") while yetzer ho'ra is frequently identified with emotion ("kochos ha'nefesh"). Not, says Reb Yisroel, that intellect is always used for the good, nor that emotion is always for the bad. The converse can, and does, occur. Nevertheless, following intellectual conclusions will usually lead one to good; following emotional drives will generally lead elsewhere.

When a person internalizes emes, awareness and contemplation grant the objectivity necessary for a true Cheshbon ha'Nefesh. The Rambam tells us that the first test of Odom Ho'Rishon was not that of good vs. evil, but rather that of emes vs. sheker. If emes is external, then the kochos ha'nefesh - and sheker - hold internal sway, and then evil follows - extending gradually, imperceptibly, at first, then sprouting and growing beyond control. (9) External awareness cannot do the trick. (10)

But, indeed, how do we educate ourselves (and others) to achieve Emes?

This question leads me to another facet of my experience. My wont, when preparing and giving a Hashkofo Shiur, is always to present all sides of the issue, even those that we will ultimately reject. Someone once asked me: Why present positions that are against Mesorah even as an intellectual Hava Amina? Suffice it to say that the Gedolim oppose position X!

At first glance, this approach is tantalizingly appealing. It certainly saves significant mental exertion, which may then be devoted to mego, rov and chazoko. Furthermore, there is a strong emotional appeal in "Ru'ach Yisroel Sabbah." Much literature in our circles is based on this approach. I hope, however, that by now the reader realizes that this apparent short cut is not without potential pitfalls:

Declarative statements remain extrinsic. Nominal, even occasional, commitment remains a "valid" option. It is only by inculcating the quest for truth and meaning; by acquiring and imparting both the truth and its basis; by training oneself and others to rigorously assess, analyze and critique, that we internalize the yetzer ha'tov of emes, and we "mohn" (demand) of ourselves. It is only when we ourselves make demands of ourselves that they are truly inescapable. We (the congregation) will only change when we ourselves demand it of ourselves, not when the Rav demands it from us. (11)

Of course, it may seem somewhat strange for us to build all of this based on Pinocchio. Excellent point. Let us turn, therefore, to a parallel in the Maharal, Be'er Ha'Golah, end of Be'er 7 (free translation):

When an individual does not intend to scoff - rather only to state his belief - even if these positions stand against your belief and system, don't say to him: "Don't talk, seal your mouth!" For then the system will not be clarified. On the contrary, in such matters we should say: "Speak as much as you want, all that you want to say, so that you will not be able to say that were you granted permission to expand you would have spoken further [and convinced me with your beliefs]." If, however, you do close his [the questioner's] mouth and prevent him from speaking, that points toward a weakness in the system. This [approach] is the converse of the general impression, which is that it is not permitted to discuss the system, and that thus the system is strengthened. On the contrary! That approach undermines the system! ... Thus [through the former approach] a person comes to the inner truth of matters... For [after all], any hero that comes to compete with another to demonstrate his might wants very much that his opponent muster as much strength as possible - then, if the hero overcomes his opponent, he proves that he is the mightier hero. What might, however, does the hero display if his opponent is not permitted to stand strong and wage war against him? ... (12)

In taking our mashal to its conclusion, we might understand an interesting perspective of the Zohar Ha'Kodosh. The Zohar calls the 613 mitzvos "Taryag Ittin" (613 suggestions). (13) To be sure, although there are other interpretations, the simple derivation of mitzvah is from the verb tzaveh, i.e., command. Why does the Zohar depart from the simple meaning?

Perhaps the Zohar is pointing at the difference between the external Jiminy Cricket and the internalized conscience. At the earlier stage, the mitzvos resemble the rules and regulations that an external system must impose on its constituents. This is the level of Avdus - the impositions of a Master on His servant. (14)

For the immature individual - be he seventeen or seventy - a structure of rules is necessary - a system to confine him to the straight and narrow.

But it is not for that end that Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu created us: "Bannim attem la'Hashem Elokeichem" (Devarim 14:1). The more we internalize "Hashem Elokeichem Emes" the more we achieve that true Tzelem Elokim which is our innermost essence. Our conscience is then not imposed command but inner truth - no longer the directive of a Master to a servant but the loving advice of a Father to his beloved - and loving son.

After a long, long look, Pinocchio said to himself with great content:

"How ridiculous I was as a Marionette! And how happy I am, now that I have become a real boy!"

(The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, 1881)

1. 1 Avoda Zara 54b.

2. 2 It is interesting, in this context, to note that Reb Itzele from Volozhin zt"l, in his he'oroh at the beginning of his father's Nefesh ha'Chaim, cites Mekkuballim who locate the yetzer ho'ra between the penimi'im and the makkifim. (A very beautiful and understandable explanation of Or Penimi and Or Makkif is in Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin zt'l's La'Torah v'la'Mo'adim in the section on Simchas Torah Hakkofos.)

3. 3 It is concerning a person at this stage of life that the Michtav Mei'Eliyahu (vol. 1 p. 255) insightfully notes that when he speaks to himself about his drives and desires he says things like: "I want this"; yet when he speaks to himself about proper behavior he admonishes himself in the format of: "You shouldn't do that." The ideal is to accomplish the converse:. I know of an Oved Hashem who has named his yetzer ho'ra "Rembrandt" (after the great artist, not the toothpaste) reflecting the yetzer ho'ra's capacity to paint beautiful - yet deceptive - portraits, and thus isolates and externalizes his yetzer ho'ra.

4. 4 This is in line with the Chazal (Koheles Rabba 4:15) that we are born with a yetzer ho'ra, while we acquire a yetzer ha'tov at bar (or bas) mitzvah.

5. 5 Avos 6:2.Technically, a Ben Chorin is a scion of nobility, not a free man, as there is a distinction between Chofesh - freedom; and Cheirus - nobility. In practice no one is truly "free" - but free here means objective vs. subjective. Most of this essay is captured by the Michtav Mei'Eliyahu's in his analysis of this Ma'amar Chazal (vol. 1 p. 117).

6. 6 I am sorely tempted to bring Peter Pan in here, but one fairytale metaphor per essay is enough!

7. 7 Yuma 85b. The Nefesh ha'Chaim (1:12) notes that sinners live in the midst of their accumulated Gehennom - the constant distracting stimuli of this world prevent them from experiencing it on an ongoing basis. Upon leaving this world, divested of its commotion, they finally confront and experience the shame and degradation of their activities.

8. 8 Or Yisroel Iggeres 30, Vilna 5660 edition and reprints p. 84. Everything we have discussed (and more) is essentially explicit in the Or Yisroel there and in the first lines of the Iggeres ha'Mussar. Sometimes, however, a mashal is a helpful tool...

9. 9 Sukkah 52b.

10. 10 "Yod'im Resho'im she'darchom l'miso, v'yesh lohem chilev al kislom" - Shabbos 31b.

11. 11 The Shem me'Shmuel on Dayeinu in the Haggadah says that the reason Am Yisroel in the Midbar fell so many times from very high levels to great depths is because the madreigos that they acquired were not their own internal accomplishments, but extrinsic ones conveyed to them by Moshe Rabbeinu.

12. 12 Cf. the Alter from Kelm, Chochmo U'Mussar vol. 2 p. 50 and p. 76 - Mesorah and Thought must go hand in hand.

13. 13 Reb Tzadok ha'Kohen of Lublin zt"l expands on this Zohar (vol. 2, 82b) in numerous places. See, for example, Tzidkas ha'Tzaddik simanim 68, 156 and 219.

14. 14 I know I am on shaky grounds here. After all, the Chofetz Chaim zt"l did not recite "Berich Shmei" because he found it presumptuous to state about himself "Ana avda d'Kudsha Berich Hu" (see Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz vol. 1, the discussion on the German minhag not to recite Berich Shmei). The Torah reserves the praise of Eved Hashem for Moshe Rabbeinu a"h. But there are different connotations to Avdus, and I am using the term here in its more negative implication.