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How to Overcome our Good and Evil Inclinations: Yetzer ha Tov and Yetzer ha Ra

“I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”  (Romans 7:21)

When the Lord created the heavens, earth, all living creatures and breathed His life-giving Spirit into man, He proclaimed it all to be very good (tov me’od  – ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד).

So, how are we capable of such wrongdoing, even evil, and how do we overcome it?

Judaism has an explanation.

The Two Inclinations

In Jewish teaching, tov and ra are Hebrew words used for our good and evil inclinations, or drives, that each person has — the struggle inside.

Yetzer ha Ra יֵצֶר הַרַע‎ refers to the Evil Inclination or the Evil Intent within our human nature to act out that evil — to sin — by violating the will of God.

We first encounter the yetzer ha ra in the days of Noah when “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent (yetzer) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil (ra) continually.”  (Genesis 6:5; also Genesis 8:21)

Yetzer ha Tov יֵצֶר הַטוֹב, the Good Inclination, refers to the potential within us to do the right thing, such as putting others before ourselves and all acts of kindness.

In Judaism, this inclination is believed to be given at the age of accountability, which is 12 years old for girls and 13 years old for boys.

A 13-year old boy (at his Bar Mitzvah) and 12-year old girl (at her Bat Mitzvah) read from the Torah.

The evil inclination, which we are born with, is considered to be stronger, since it came first.

King David, the person called “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), confessed to God after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah the Hittite that “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  (Psalm 51:5)

Just because David had a heart for God, does not mean his own heart was always pure or holy.

The Prophet Jeremiah explained that “the heart is deceitful above all else and beyond cure.”  (Jeremiah 17:9)

Like King David, our hearts are inherently sinful, too.  So, what can we do to avoid sinning?

King David statue at Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Medieval Jewish commentator Rashi explains that though we have the longing to sin, we also “have the ability to subdue it.”  (Sifrei on Deuteronomy, P. Ekev 45, Kidd. 30b.)

How do we subdue it?

With the Word of God.

The Rabbis’ understanding (in Kiddushin 30b of the Talmud) emphasizes that the Torah (God’s Instructions) is the “antidote to the poison of the ‘evil inclination.’”

God tells us exactly how powerful His Word is:

“Is not My Word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”  (Jeremiah 23:29).

The Rabbis ask, “Who is mighty?”  And they answer, the one who overpowers his evil inclination, one who exercises severe self-control, refusing to yield to passions. (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1),

Certainly, this would make Yeshua (Jesus) the mightiest of men, a true superhero.

The three temptations that Yeshua faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4; Luke 4) represent those that we ourselves face in daily life.  But, unlike Yeshua, we have not always been able to overpower or subdue them.

Just as the Rabbis teach today, Yeshua accessed the Torah to swiftly overcome any inclination to sin, even while hot and hungry during a 40-day fast!

Carl Heinrich Bloch's painting of the Temptation of Yeshua (Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace in Copenhagen)

Temptation of Christ (1603), by Philips Augustijn Immenraet

These temptations were:

Battling our Flesh (or the lust of the eyes):  Satan told Yeshua to turn stones into bread at a moment when He was starving.  He quoted the Torah:  “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).

Pride:  Satan took Yeshua to the Holy City and told him to throw himself off the highest point of the Temple if he was really the Son of God.  Again, Yeshua quoted the Torah:  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:7).

The World (or the pride of life):  Satan then took Yeshua to a high mountain and offered Him all the kingdoms of the earth.  Yeshua quoted the Torah for the last and final time:  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only”  (Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 4:10).

And then Satan left him.

Yeshua quoted the Word of God boldly in the desert and throughout His life because He is “the Word made flesh who tabernacled among us.”  (John 1:14)

As we study God’s Word, memorize it, and proclaim it, we can more boldly and consistently overcome temptations to sin.

Jewish men study at Yeshivat Sanz (a Jewish seminary) in Netanya, Israel.

Circumcising the Heart

The Rabbis say that we are to “circumcise our hearts,” to cut out the sin that results from our evil inclination (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6, Leviticus 26:41).

Can we circumcise our own hearts?

No.  We need a Mohel (the specialist who does the circumcision).  In other words — we need some help with this!

Rabbi Shaul (the Apostle Paul) explains that circumcision of the heart is produced “by the Spirit, not by the written code.”  (Romans 2:29)

King David understood that merely making a sacrifice to cover a sin (as the Torah required) was not sufficient until he dealt with his heart issue:

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. …”  (Psalm 51:17–19)

Psalm 51 is, in essence, King David’s circumcision process.

He first acknowledges:

“Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil [ra] in Your sight.”  (verse 4)

David also sincerely cries out to God for His Presence not to leave him, for cleansing, and for restoration:

Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and

Renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit.  (verses 10-12)

David knows the process won’t be complete without the help of Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit).

He needed God’s Holy Spirit to fully circumcise his heart and restore him into right standing before God.  David also understood that he could not proclaim the glory of God, nor continue ruling under God’s authority and power without God’s Spirit.

And for us to live a victorious life, we also need to call on God to fill us with His Holy Spirit.

Jewish man prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall wearing a tallit (prayer shawl).

Living by the Spirit

King Solomon wrote that “whoever sows injustice reaps calamity,”  (Proverbs 22:8)

Rabbi Shaul (Paul) wrote that if we “walk by the Spirit,” then we “will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”  (Galatians 5:16)

If we consciously submit to God, moment by moment, and resist Satan, he will flee from us (James 4:7).

This is not because of any good inclination we have, but because of the authority of the Spirit given to us.

In the Spirit, we can exercise tremendous power.  The disciples, for example, were amazed at their newfound abilities to cast out demonic spirits from people (Luke 10:20).

There are many “spirits” in this world, but only One Holy Spirit.

And it is the power of the Holy Spirit that helps us overpower and subdue our evil inclinations and circumcise our hearts as the Rabbis ascribe to.

Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a sign that we do have His power within us (Galatians 5:23).

And in this powerful Holy Spirit, we are called to fully participate in our God-given destiny:

“For you were created in Messiah Yeshua to do the good works that God prepared in advance for you to do.”  (Ephesians 2:10)

What a relief that we don’t have to attain this level of righteousness by ourselves!

Jewish People worship at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

And it doesn’t end there.

In the last chapter of the Bible, all evil inclinations have finally been slain by God Himself, and we will experience a fully restored creation, perfectly holy, pure and good:

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’  for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

“‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”

“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”  (Revelation 21:1–5).

You can make a difference today by helping us introduce Messiah Yeshua to Jewish People so that their hearts will be circumcised and they will receive the power of His Spirit and God’s goodness forever.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”  (Romans 10:14)

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