One of a Jew’s major goals in life is to emerge victorious over the yetzer hara. The first step, of course, is to be aware of the yetzer tov‘s machinations. If we live our lives on cruise control, we cannot possibly succeed.
The Gemara tells us, “Yitzro shel adam misgaber alav b’chol yom – A person’s evil inclination prevails upon him every day” (Kiddushin 30b). Therefore, “l’olam yargiz adam yetzer tov al yetzer hara – a person should always excite and engage his yetzer tov against his yetzer hara” (Berachos 3a). It’s a perennial battle that demands constant attention. If we are not engaged in struggle, we’ve already lost. And if we think we have no spiritual challenges, we can be sure we’ve missed the boat.
The Chovos HaLevavos, a great Jewish philosopher and a major pillar of the mussar movement, asks a seminal question: “Why is it that our evil inclination often seems to be so much stronger than our good inclination?” Why is it so hard to get out of bed in the morning? Why is it so hard to pay attention when we pray? Why do we so easily succumb to temptations such as screaming at home, talking in shul, gossiping about our neighbor, and looking at things we shouldn’t?
He explains that the yetzer tov is fueled by mitzvos, and this fuel very often is flawed. Our prayers are said without meaning, our good deeds are riddled with ulterior motives, and pride mars many of our good practices. On the other hand, the yetzer hara is powered by materialistic fuel, like food, which we indulge in to perfection.
On Memorial Day, many of us broke out our BBQ grills. We didn’t just prepare our steak medium or rare; it had to be medium-rare – just so. And our ribs needed to be accompanied by one of 12 different BBQ flavors. With such precision and care in the realm of materialism, the yetzer hara is better fueled than the yetzer tov, and that’s why it gets the upper hand.
With this crucial insight, we can shift the balance between the yetzer hara and yetzer tov in our favor. We can try to do more wholesome good deeds, such as being kind when people aren’t watching and no one knows who the benefactor is. We can put on tefillin, not just like a blood pressure cuff, but with a commitment to use our heads and hearts in the right way. We can learn Torah to fulfill the commandment of v’dibarta bam, not just as an excuse to get out of the house or spend time with the boys.
And when we engage in materialistic pursuits, it need not be in the service of the yetzer hara. When we eat cholent and kugel, we can celebrate that Hashem created the world. When we have our morning coffee or latte, we can enjoy it with the intent that we’ll daven better or that we’ll be fairer with our spouse and more patient with our kids.
We can increase our efforts from both ends – powering our yetzer tov more and fueling our yetzer hara less. The end result will be increased success in the most important battle of our lives.
In the merit of these successes, may Hashem bless us with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.