And when Israel saw the mighty power which the Eternal had wielded in Egypt, the people feared the Eternal and they had faith in the Eternal and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)
The Children of Israel are no longer slaves in Egypt. They have just crossed the Reed Sea, which had miraculously parted for them. They have seen Pharaoh and his armies drowned in it. Now they believe in God and in Moses. In fact they are about to overtaken by prophetic ecstasy and will burst into song; known to us as the Song of Sea.
But how quickly things can change. In the very next chapter the Israelites will complain about Moses. And even before the giving of the Torah has been completed, while Moses is still on Mt. Sinai, they will build and worship the golden calf. The same people who had been saved from slavery and had seen all the miracles, which went along with the redemption, will commit idolatry.
Idolatry and its consequences became a theme of Israelite history. Over and over again the Israelites rebelled against God and worshiped idols: both during the forty years that they spent in the wilderness and when they settled in the Land of Israel, in the period of the Judges and then the Monarchy.
In the Book of Judges every time the Israelites turned away from the Eternal and worshiped idols they would be attacked by the neighbouring nations and according to the Babylonian Talmud one of the main reasons for the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile that followed it was idolatry.
This phenomenon continued and presented the Sages with a difficult question. How could people who had witnessed the presence of God or had heard the words of the prophets or were very wise possibly have committed idolatry?
The not especially earth-shattering answer they reached was that past generations had an inclination to worship idols.
The power of this desire, to worship idols, is related in a story in Tractate Sanhedrin. A Rabbi was lecturing about King Manasseh, a King of Judah famous for his wisdom and infamous for his idol-worship; during the lecture the rabbi referred to Manasseh in a disparaging way. That night the king appeared to the rabbi in a dream and asked him a difficult halakhic question.
The rabbi was unable to answer and after Manasseh had answered his own question the rabbi asked. ‘If you were so wise how did you come to worship idols?’ To which Manasseh retorted, ‘Had you been there you would have rushed to serve them!’
How could this have happened? The answer is given in one of my favourite talmudic narratives, which can be found in Tractate Sanhedrin.
When the Men of the Great Assembly were building Judaism after the return from exile they were concerned that further idolatry might result in more hardship. So they prayed for their people to be relieved from the inclination to idolatry. Their prayers were successful and they were able to capture and subdue the inclination to idolatry.
Although the inclination to idolatry may no longer be with us, the Yetzer Hara, the inclination to evil very much is. But this might not be such a bad thing, for unlike the doctrine of original sin the Yetzer Hara is not an inherently bad thing.
This idea is powerfully expressed in the continuation of the Talmudic story about the Men of Great of the Assembly and the inclination to idolatry. When they had succeeded in subduing this inclination they prayed to be able to do the same to the Yetzer Hara: at which point the Yetzer Hara appeared in the form of a cat. While attempting to capture it a single hair was pulled from its coat, at which it let out a roar so loud that it shook the building. The Men of the Great Assembly decided that it would be wiser not to try and slay the Yetzer Hara so they sealed it up in a box instead.
And what was the result of a world without the Yetzer Hara?
Basically everything stopped.
The Sages concluded that without the Yetzer Hara people would not learn a trade, study, build a house, or raise a family. According to the story when the Yetzer Hara was imprisoned even chickens stopped laying eggs. Faced with the realisation that the Yetzer Hara was necessary the Men of the Great Assembly released it.
Although the Yetzer Hara is not entirely evil it is essential to balance it with the Yetzer Hatov, the good inclination. Because of the prompting of the Yetzer Hara we work and study hard and go about the business of life. And through the struggle required in balancing the Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov, personal growth becomes a real possibility.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.