Reb Naftali of Ropshitz (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz [b. Linsk, Galicia, Poland], 1760) once caught his son Eliezer engaged in some great prank.
“It isn’t my fault,” the boy said. “It’s God’s fault. God gave me a yetzer harah, whose only task is to talk me into doing these terrible things. Don’t blame me, blame Him!”
Reb Naftali scowled, then smiled and said: “God has given you the yetzer harah to instruct you.”
“Instruct me, What can I learn from this trickster?” the boy asked.
“Faithfulness and perseverance,” Reb Naftali replied. “look how diligently the yetzer harah goes about its business. It never gets bored or tired of doing what God created it to do — to seduce people to selfish acts. Now you should never tire of doing what God created you to do defeat it.”
Eliezer listened carefully as his father spoke. When Reb Naftali had finished, Eliezer said: “But you have forgotten a very important thing.”
“And what is that?” Reb Naftali asked.
“The yetzer harah goes about its task without fail because the yetzer harah has no yetzer harah to distract it with thoughts of doing otherwise. With people it is different, for ‘sin crouches at the door.’ (Genesis 4:7) Every time we open the door to a new experience, the yetzer harah is waiting at the entrance to trick us into doing something wrong.”
Every door has its own dangers. Every moment you have to make a choice: which inclination will you follow — the yetzer harah or the yetzer hatov?
Or can you honor them both? The yetzer harah is honored when you honor the needs of self; the yetzer hatov is honored when you respect the rights of others. Can you find a way to balance self and other, and in this way honor both inclinations to be in the world in a manner that hallows the world?
People are born with two impulses: yetzer harah, the impulse toward evil, and yetzer hatov, the impulse toward good. The yetzer harah is not evil per se, but rather a proneness to evil when it is not properly balanced by the yetzer hatov. Hence Hillel’s teaching: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). A more accurate translation of these two impulses, then, would be the “selfish impulse” and the “selfless impulse.” The sages taught that without the yetzer harah a person would not build a home, marry, or raise a family, for these require a sense of self and self-fulfillment (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7). The former becomes “evil” only when it is allowed to function without the counterbalance of the latter. When we act solely for the self, evil is possible: business becomes exploitative, marriage becomes oppressive, and sex becomes abusive. When we act for both self and other, the yetzer harah is given direction; it follows the lead of the good and lends its energy to attaining the good.