“They were both unclothed, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” (Bereishis 2:25)
Rashi explains that until man sinned, he could not discern between good and bad. Although Adam HaRishon was able to analyze the essence of each animal and name Hashem’s creations, he was not given a yetzer hara until he and his wife ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
The commentaries are baffled by Rashi’s explanation. If Adam and Chava did not have an Evil Inclination, what exactly caused them to transgress the direct commandment of Hashem and eat from the Tree of Knowledge that had been prohibited to them?
In addition, we know that man’s raison d’etre is to constantly battle the yetzer hara, who tries to persuade us not to fulfill the will of Hashem. Our sages tell us (Avos 4:1) that the strong person is the one who subdues his Evil Inclination. In a similar vein, the Sefer Mesilas Yesharim states that life is a perpetual struggle with the yetzer hara to withstand the conflict and challenges that it presents.
If man had no yetzer hara, then what was the purpose of his creation?
The answer to this question is found in the writings of R’ Chaim Volozhin’s Sefer Nefesh HaChaim. He explains that before Adam HaRishon sinned he had free choice; he could do good or bad. However, the yetzer hara, so to speak, was an external force. When the impure force (sitra achra) wanted man to sin it sent the serpent to ensnare him, unlike today when the yetzer operates in man’s mind to mislead him. When Adam partook of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge the yetzer hara became an internal force, as it is today. That is what our sages tell us (Shabbos 146a): “When the serpent encountered Chava he injected a desire within her; the desire to sin became an internalized power.
The earlier commentaries disagree about the essence of the yetzer hara. The Sefer Yefeh To’ar cites the Ramban that the Evil Inclination and the Good Inclination are two angels that stand by man. One advises him to do good; the other advises him to do evil. The Radak, the Rema, and Rambam write that the Evil Inclination is a force that persuades the person to incline towards the desires of his heart. The Good Inclination is the potential of intelligence with which a person is blessed that inspires within him a love for that which is righteous and just.
The Sefer Yefeh To’ar concludes that fundamentally a person must recognize that there are two powers within the individual – the intellect which guides him in the proper way, and the passion for materialism which casts him down. Each of these forces has a designated angel that controls it.
The Vilna Gaon states that the yetzer hara does not, in fact, have the capacity to make someone abandon the path of righteousness. It is only when one does not serve Hashem sincerely, with all his heart, that the yetzer hara can enter and affect the person.
The Rizhiner spoke of the danger the yetzer hara presents and how careful one must be to guard oneself against his provocations. He cites Koheles (4:13): “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king,” noting Rashi’s explanation that the old and foolish king refers to the Evil Inclination. He then states in wonderment: I understand why the yetzer hara is called a king – he has sway over a person and can entice him to sin. I could also understand why he is called old – he comes to the person when he is still young. But the yetzer hara is certainly not foolish. He diligently works to outsmart and outwit the individual. However, when I was locked up in prison, I finally understood why the yetzer hara is called a fool. All the time that I was in prison he remained with me and refused to leave. I argued that I had no choice and was forced to remain in prison, but he was a fool to remain with me.
The Maggid of Dubno compares this to a merchant who loaded up his valuable merchandise and traveled to another city, intending to go from door to door selling his wares. Many of the city’s inhabitants were happy to see him, but the other merchants who lived in the city were very unhappy. They felt that he was encroaching on their territory and were quite upset. After gathering to discuss the problem, they decided to summon him to a din Torah (rabbinical court) presided over by the rabbi of the city.
After listening to the arguments of both sides and carefully weighing the testimony, the Rav rendered his decision. He ruled that the merchant could sell his wares if he adhered to the following three conditions: He could only approach a house that was open to all; he could not tout his wares unless he was asked; and if he was requested to leave a home which he had entered he must do so by immediately via the closest exit available.
So too it is with the yetzer hara, expounded the Maggid of Dubno. The Evil Inclination only comes in when there is an inviting accessible point of entry. He does not have permission to come in to an individual steeped in Torah study, someone who does mitzvos and performs acts of chesed. The Evil Inclination extols his merchandise only to those who express an interest in it. If a person wants to do teshuvah and shows the Evil Inclination the door, the yetzer hara must depart through the closest exit without delay.