I remember first learning about the yetzer ha’rah and the yetzer ha’tov as a student in elementary school. We were told that the yetzer ha’rah is constantly urging us to do bad things. But the yetzer ha’tov gives us the proper guidance. It directs us to do good things and battles the evil council of the yetzer ha’rah. I remember the image evoked by this lesson. I imagined two little angels – one perched on each of my shoulders. The angel on one shoulder – the yetzer ha’rah – whispers evil council into my ear, while the other angel situated on the other shoulder – the yetzer ha’tov – advises me to ignore the tempting suggestion of its adversary. Of course, I do not attribute this simplistic characterization to my teachers – probably my first and second grade rabbayim. Instead, this was the manner in which I – the immature – student interpreted and adapted the sophisticated ideas that were beyond my immature level of understanding.
As I grew older I decided that this imagery – indeed my fundamental understanding of the yetzer ha’rah and the yetzer ha’tov – needed some reworking. I became disillusioned with this simplistic characterization on many levels. On the most basic level, I came to realize that the yetzer ha’rah and the yetzer ha’tov seemed to conform to forces with which I had some familiarity. These two terms seemed to accurately describe the battle I often experienced between urges that I identified as less than wholesome and my better judgment which recognized the folly in following these urges. So, although there was some attraction in clinging to the belief that there was some real internal me that acted as an arbitrator between these two external forces, I realized that in reality these forces were intimate elements of my internal nature.
On a more intellectual level, I was uncomfortable with the idea that Hashem had created some evil force whose sole purpose was to mislead and corrupt innocent individuals. So, the idea of a purely evil yetzer ha’rah was somewhat disturbing.
So, what is the yetzer ha’rah? Can it be a purely evil force? Does Hashem create in each of us an inclination to perform evil? How can such a concept be reconciled with the Torah’s concept of a perfectly benevolent Creator who does no evil? An important insight into this issue is contained in this week’s parasha.
Our parasha describes the actual fabrication and construction of the Mishcan. Each component is briefly describes and its place within the overall structure of the Mishcan is defined. In the above pasuk, the Torah discusses the washbasin which was located in the courtyard of the Mishcan and used by the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet prior to performing their service in the Mishcan. The pasuk tells us that this washbasin and its stand were manufactured from the mirrors of the women that would congregate to pray at the opening of the Mishcan.
Rashi comments that Moshe was reluctant to accept this contribution. What was Moshe’s objection? In order to appreciate his objection, we must begin with a simple question. For what purpose are mirrors used? We look in mirrors to study our appearance. Mirrors are a tool that we use in order to indulge personal vanity. Vanity is an expression of the yetzer ha’rah. So, mirrors are one of the tools of the yetzer ha’rah. Moshe was concerned with this association between mirrors and the yetzer ha’rah. The Mishcan was designed for the service of Hashem. So, he concluded that it was inappropriate to build an element of the Mishcan from a material associated with the yetzer ha’rah.
Moshe’s reasoning seems sound. But apparently Moshe was wrong. Hashem instructed Moshe to reverse his decision. Why did Hashem want this donation to be accepted? What was Moshe’s error?
Rashi explains that one of the reasons the Egyptians afflicted Bnai Yisrael with intense physical labor was to slow down the population growth. Paroh wanted to work the men to the point of exhaustion. He reasoned that this would undermine relations between man and wife. The women defeated Paroh’s plan. They would travel out to the men. They would bring food. And they brought their mirrors. Man and wife would share a meal. Then the wife would hold her mirror in front of herself and her husband. Jokingly the wife would brag of her greater beauty. A relaxed banter would develop. The rigor of the work would be temporarily forgotten. Marital life was maintained.
On a superficial level, the comments of Rashi are difficult to understand. Moshe argues that these mirrors were the tool of the yetzer ha’rah. On this basis, he rejected them for use in the fabrication of an element of the Mishcan. Hashem responded by pointing out that the mirrors had been used for a positive end and for this reason they should be included in the materials for the Mishcan. But if this is the meaning of Rashi’s comments, then Moshe actually seems to be fully justified in his objection. It is true that in an isolated instance the mirrors were used for a positive end. But this does not refute Moshe’s objection. Surely, Moshe was aware of this incident in which the mirrors had been used for a positive purpose. But Moshe’s objection was that this isolated instance does not compensate for the overall nature of the mirrors. Despite this single instance in which the mirrors had served a positive end, their overall nature is clear and unchanged. They are a tool of the yetzer ha’rah! How can a single instance of this tool being employed for a positive end compensate for its overall nature?
But before we consider an alternative interpretation of Rashi’s comments let us study another pasuk.
“And you should love Hashem your G-d with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your resources.” (Devarim 6:5)
This familiar pasuk is recited each day as part of the Shema. It instructs us in the commandment to love Hashem. It explains that this love must be all encompassing. It must reflect the feeling of our hearts, our souls and that all of our resources must be made available for the expression of our love of Hashem. The Mishna explains that the phrase “all of you heart” means with both the yetzer ha’tov and the yetzer ha’rah. We can readily understand that we must love Hashem with our yetzer ha’tov. But the amazing element of this comment of the Sages is that we can and must love Hashem with our yetzer ha’rah! How does one do this?
Maimonides discusses this issue at length. The general message of Maimonides is that a person a person should serve Hashem in all of one’s actions. He makes two points. First, he explains that ideally, a person should not eat in order to indulge desires. Instead, a person should eat in order to give oneself the strength to serve Hashem. Second, he explains the comments of the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat. The Talmud comments that a Torah scholar should seek to secure a pleasant marital life, a pleasant home, and pleasant clothing – for these elements of life aid the scholar in his studies. According to Maimonides, a person is influenced by one’s environment. This environment can either encourage a positive attitude or foster depression. A scholar will be most successful in his studies if his attitude and general outlook is positive. Therefore, the scholar should seek to secure a positive environment.
According to Maimonides, this is the meaning of serving Hashem with our yetzer ha’rah. We all have physical needs and material desires. In satisfying our physical needs we should set as our objective the service of Hashem. We should also not neglect our material desires. When these desires are addressed in a measured and realistic manner, we can achieve a state of internal peace that is essential in the study of Torah. When we neglect these desires, we encumber our efforts with frustration and depression.
Apparently, Maimonides defines the yetzer ha’rah as our physical and material desires and urges. According to his interpretation, we do not actually directly serve Hashem with our yetzer ha’rah. But we must consider and develop an accommodation with our yetzer ha’rah in order to serve Hashem fully. We cannot overindulge our yetzer ha’rah and neither can we ignore it. Instead, complete service of Hashem requires a balanced accommodation of human nature. Without this accommodation our service will be compromised.
In Maimonides’ approach, the yetzer ha’rah is neither evil nor good. It is an element of basic human existence. We are physical, material creatures. Therefore, we are subject to desires that stem from this element of our nature. If we respond to these desires properly, the results will be positive. If we do not respond properly the outcome will be evil.
Now, let us return to Rashi’s comments regarding the mirrors used for the washbasin. If we adopt Maimonides’ approach to understanding the yetzer ha’rah, Rashi’s comments can be readily understood. Moshe rejected the mirrors because they represented the yetzer ha’rah. But let us reconsider Hashem’s refutation of Moshe’s argument. Perhaps, the point that Hashem made to Moshe was that even though the mirrors represent the yetzer ha’rah, this does not disqualify them for use in the Mishcan. The yetzer ha’rah is neither evil nor good. The women of Bnai Yisrael used these mirrors in order to attract the attention of their husbands and to brighten their mood. They were evoking and appealing to the physical desires of their husbands. But they were not interested in awakening these desires simply as an expression of lust. Instead, their goal was to assure the future of Bnai Yisrael.
In summary, the yetzer ha’rah is neither good nor evil. If it is indulged as an end unto itself, it leads us away from Hashem. We are also diverted from the service of Hashem if we neglect the yetzer ha’rah. But if we respond to the urges of the yetzer ha’rah, we will be empowered to more fully serve Hashem. In addition, as Rashi points out, the yetzer ha’rah can even act as an ally in serving Hashem.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 38:8.
 Mesechet Berachot 9:5.
 Messechet Shabbat 25b, Mesechet Berachot 57b.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction to Mesechet Avot, chapter 5.