Novelty and the Evil Inclination

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #12b: Novelty and the Evil Inclination

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Rabbi Yitzchak said: A person's evil inclination tries to renew itself against him daily, as it says 'And all the inclinations of the thoughts of his heart are only evil all day' (Bereishit 6:5). Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: A person's inclination tries to overpower him daily and tries to kill him, as it says 'The wicked waits for the righteous and seeks to slay him' (Tehillim 37:32). And would it not be for God's help, a person could not succeed against it, as it says 'And God does not abandon him in his hand.'(Ibid. 37:33) (Sukka 52a-b, Kiddushin 30b)

It would seem that the yetzer hara has two distinct strategies: "mitgaber" (overpowering) and "mitchadesh" (renewing), that is, force and novelty. (Parenthetically, I believe that the gemara employs the term "yezter hara" not to refer to a figure in red tights holding a pitchfork but to a part of the human personality.) What is the significance of novelty as a strategy for provoking a person to sin?

Maharal explains in his Chiddushei Aggadot that the inclination adjusts just as the person adjusts. Personalities change over the course of time, and the religious and moral temptations change as well. For example, an adolescent might think of temptation in purely sexual terms, but an older person might well be more tempted by honor. If so, Reish Lakish instructs us to be aware of the changing temptations at different stages of life and to take measures accordingly.

R. Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef was a nineteenth century commentator on midrash and aggada who lived in Bialystok. He cites a terrific reading of this gemara in his Anaf Yosef (found in the Ein Yaakov). He begins by distinguishing between two types of sins. There are sins that people have a natural inclination for, such as sins of the flesh. There also are sins we do not have such an inclination for, such as the prohibition not to wear clothing mixed of linen and wool. With regard to the latter, the evil inclination can only get us to transgress with an act of hitgabrut, or forceful strength.

With regard to the more obviously tempting sins, the evil inclination does not require such effort. Rather, the evil inclination faces a different challenge. Hedonism begins with great excitement but it usually results in an acute sense of boredom. A life dedicated to tasting the finest steaks, for example, can retain a person's interest for only so long before the choicest meats cease to look appealing. The evil inclination must employ the strategy of novelty in an attempt to convince us that the next steak will be a qualitatively different experience. That inclination is "mitchadesh" each day.

Soren Kierkegaard understood this point well, and describes boredom as the challenge to the hedonist in his book Either/Or:

Once pleasure had but to beckon me and I rose, light of foot, sound and unafraid. When I rode slowly through the woods, it was as if I flew; now when the horse is covered with lather and ready to drop, it seems to me that I do not move. I am solitary as always; forsaken, not by men, which could not hurt me, but by the happy fairies of joy, who used to encircle me in countless multitude… My soul has lost its potentiality. If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.

This interpretation might suggest to us a strategy towards educating the hedonistically inclined. We might point out that the freshness and visceral delight that currently appear attractive will ultimately not last. While I would not deny that observant Jews can also find themselves bored with religion, I still feel confident asserting that the ongoing opportunity for spiritual growth and deeper understanding of Torah provides the continuing sense of the potential and the possible spoken of by Kierkegaard.

One last insight on this gemara appears in the Shem Mishmuel (Parashat Nitzavim) of the Sochachover Rebbe. He argues that there exists a power of novelty and innovation in this world. If we do not employ this power in a religious setting, it will find expression in more problematic contexts. In other words, innovation and freshness is a basic aspect of being human and should not be rejected or ignored. If we do so, the need for novelty will emerge in a more ugly fashion. Without downplaying the strong sense of tradition and structure in Orthodox Judaism, we should feel challenged to provide our students with a sense of potential freshness. This may involve encouraging new Torah insights, adding a personal supplication to the fixed text of prayer, or other such strategies. Resisting the evil inclination depends upon fostering a strong sense of vitality and potentiality within the boundaries of traditional Judaism.